Friday, November 16, 2018

Paul Blackburn scratchpad

I've been discovering Paul Blackburn's writing, something I've been meaning to do  for about a year, after Laurie Duggan mentioned him in a comment on this blog. Blackburn's poetry is a thrill, the way it keeps bumping into reality -- a kind of unstaged naturalism. With exquisite use of the page and the typewriter, especially the punctuation keys. Of course these remarks are not original.

Here's one of his poems, borrowed from the Poetry Foundation site:

Ritual X.: The Evening Pair of Ales

is mountains & desert
until you cross the passes into India  .
It is 3 o’clock in the afternoon or
twenty of 8 at night, depending
                   which clock you believe  .
It’s where the cups and saucers are,
the plates, the knives and forks  .
                   The turkey sandwich comes alone
                   or with onions if you like
The old newspaperman always takes his hat off
& lays it atop the cigarette machine;
the younger, so-hip journalist, leaves his on
old-style .

The old man sits down in the corner, puts
                  his hat back on. No challenge, but
                        it’s visible, the beau geste  .
                                       The cigarette
hangs from the side of the younger man’s mouth, he’s
putting himself on  .
                   East of Eden is mountains & desert & every
                   thing creeps up on you & comes in the night,
                                      unexpectedly  .
when one would least put out his hand
to offer, or to defend  .

I've found some good things online that I want to read more carefully, so I'm bunging all the links into this post.

EPC page, with a decent few poems, plus other writings, interviews etc (compiled by Jack Krick).

Poetry Foundation page, including links to another bunch of poems:

Ron Silliman on PB:

Edith Jarolim and M.L. Blumenthal (extracted from the Selected Poems):

Edie Jarolim (Introduction to the Collected Poems)

Edie Jarolim's retrospect, 30 years on:

Clayton Eshleman:


Degradation and instinct

Xenophobia is a natural instinct in the human species, according to Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Hebrew 2011, English translation 2014). It was a matter of survival. Trust grows only from shared understanding. Incomers are invaders, driven hither by a search for something you already possess. It's safest to assume that this involves dispossessing you.

Today we think of xenophobia chiefly as a hatred (suspicion, fear) of other nationals, but the idea of nations emerged only recently. At root we are talking about fear of strangers, particularly incomers.

If we are honest we must recognize this ugly instinct as a loaded gun in our own mental arsenal. Just as (speaking of white men of my own generation), we would be unconscionably dim not to be aware of the racist and sexist attitudes lurking within us.

Like other instincts, fear of the stranger has an evolutionary basis but can be mastered, or over-ridden (not necessarily permanently) by other instincts, such as sexual attraction.

In the Life of Buonaparte, Ch LXXIX, Scott says of the poor (re the Allied seizure of Paris in 1814): "In the present circumstances the hatred to foreigners, proper to persons of their class, came to aid their admiration of Buonaparte."

Scott's unguarded views of the lower orders are always interesting. A few pages earlier, he notes this disturbing eruption on the streets of Paris, perhaps more disturbing to the middle classes than the enemy at the gate:

At length, the numerous crowds which assembled in the Boulevards, and particularly in the streets near the Palais Royal, assumed a more active appearance. There began to emerge from the suburbs and lanes those degraded members of the community, whose slavish labour is only relieved by coarse debauchery, invisible for the most part to the more decent classes of society, but whom periods of public calamity or agitation bring into view, to add to the general confusion and terror. They gather in times of public danger, as birds of ill omen and noxious reptiles are said to do at the rising of a tropical hurricane; and their fellow citizens look with equal disgust and dread upon faces and figures, as strange to them as if they had issued from some distant and savage land. Paris, like every great metropolis, has her share, and more than her share, of this unwholesome population. It was the frantic convocations of this class which had at once instigated and carried into effect the principal horrors of the Revolution, and they seemed now resolved to signalize its conclusion by the destruction of the capital. Most of these banditti were under the influence of Buonaparte’s police, and were stimulated by the various arts which his emissaries employed. (Life of Buonaparte, Ch LXXVII).

This is a particularly negative vision and it doesn't represent Scott's overall view of the lower orders. Many of the finest characters in his novels are working folk portrayed with great sympathy. But here he's talking about a country not his own, about urban mobs rather than rural characters, and of course in the context of Paris he wants to remind us of the all too recent Terror.

Besides, Scott's views on civil unrest had hardened after Peterloo. Interesting that he refers to the native underclass (from the point of view of the "decent classes of society") as strangers: "as strange to them as if they had issued from some distant and savage land". So the middle classes were xenophobic too: it's just that, for them, the strangers were the working classes of their own city. This was the exotic line crossed by Zola when he wrote L'Assommoir.

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Monday, November 12, 2018

Mew gulls, Anabaptism


"June night never comes," wrote Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson, in his youth a sailor. Poetry floods over me this light, balmy, early summer evening, on a boat leaving Gottskär in northern Halland province.

The heavens have landed in the sea. Or else the Kattegat between Sweden and Denmark has become a galactic lagoon, a tranquil gleam, shimmering pink, along the Milky Way. We're on our way to Sweden's very first lighthouse site, ceded by the Danes in the Treaty of Brömsebro in 1645. Its setting is perhaps more remarkable and beautiful than others and it is also by far the most dangerous -- the terror of skippers in days gone by. A spoiler with treacherous reefs, shallows and sharp rocks that once caused at least two shipwrecks a year, sometimes even in calm weather. Thus also a place where bale fires were lit, logs burning in the dark to warn seafarers.

Geologically, the island is an end moraine, given a designer touch on the seabed by the most recent glacier when it receded more than ten thousand years ago, leaving debris shaved from the rock: blocks, boulders, gravel, sand. With land elevation, the tip of the ridge finally became visible perhaps around the time of the birth of Christ. It is still just a thin strip, like a mirage in the trembling heat of summer, a raft adrift towards the horizon.

You can tie up here only if the wind is slack. If there's a westerly blow, those ashore on Nidingen risk a stay of several days. ...

So my mind is back in Sweden again, thanks to these two books (above and below). Copies of West Coast: Sweden's Ocean Front, previously used to fill bookshelves in the showroom, were being given away by IKEA in Bristol. I found the volume of Strindberg's history plays in the bookshop beside the cafe at Bodiam Castle. Net outlay £1, unless you also take into account the lost income while I'm filling my mind with books instead of working.

In Sweden, but not in Swedish. The coffee-table book (photos by Tore Hagman, text by Stefan Edman) was translated into North American by Kim Loughran (hence "mew gulls", which I had to look up; in the UK they are known as common gulls), and the Strindberg plays are mostly translated by C. D. Locock (one by Joan Bulman) (1931).

I always feel a bit remiss, reading Swedish books in English; I miss learning, for instance, that the Swedish word for lighthouse is "fyrplats". This isn't the way to become competent in Swedish. As it happened my sister Miranda was in that Bodiam cafe, over from Stockholm; and how I admired her growing ease with "fastighetsforeningen" and all the other words you learn from being there. It's been an unprecedented three years since my last visit.

But still, here I am, at any rate virtually, in Nidingen (an island off the coast of Halland), and in Strängnäs (cathedral town on Lake Mälaren (to the west of Stockholm).


I suppose coffee-table books are considered a lowly form of literature. Stefan Edman writes as an efficient journalist, seasoning his lyricism with lovely quotations and well-chosen scraps of history and geology. Perhaps he over-writes a little, but that's because this is the first page. I don't quite know what the milky way, that wintry sight, is doing in this evocation of early summer.

But all these judgements are rebutted by a single reflection, "He's doing it, and you're not." Edman's boat is certainly afloat, Nidingen here we come! And after all he has some admirable successes too: from far out to sea, the sudden close-up of "logs burning in the dark"; and the gradation of that sea's work in "blocks, boulders, gravel, sand".

"Seamen's spoiler", "a spoiler with treacherous reefs"... This sense of "spoiler" -- presumably, a hazard close to a sea-lane -- is unknown to the OED, and I can't find any examples on the internet either.

Harry Martinson, "June night never comes". In Swedish, the line is "Juni natt blir aldrig av", from this poem:

Nu går solen knappast ner,
bländar bara av sitt sken.
Skymningsbård blir gryningstimme
varken tidig eller sen.

Insjön håller kvällens ljus
glidande på vattenspegeln
eller vacklande på vågor
som långt innan de ha mörknat
spegla morgonsolens lågor.

Juni natt blir aldrig av,
liknar mest en daggig dag.
Slöjlikt lyfter sig dess skymning
och bärs bort på ljusa hav.
Bale-fire. A large bonfire. In older usage, a funeral pyre (e.g. Beowulf's). Later, often a beacon or signal fire, a usage popularized by Scott in the Lay of the Last Minstrel.

And yet you wish to sow the seeds of civil war. 'Tis a godless act!
Gert. Nay, now that you have the knife is in the flesh, cut! Then the body may be saved.
Olof. I shall denounce you as a traitor to your country!
Gert. You should not do that -- you who have this day irretrievably broken with the Church! Besides --
Olof. Speak out, Gert! You look like Satan at this moment!
Gert. You shall share my secret; make what use of it you like! The King goes to Malmö today; two days later Stockholm will be in revolt!
Olof. What do you say?
Gert. Do you know Rink and Knipperdollink?
Olof (horrified). The Anabaptists!
Gert. Yes! Why are you so surprised? They are merely a pair of bourgeois louts. A furrier and a grocer, who deny the use of baptism to a soulless child, and are simple enough to object to deliberate perjury extorted from an irrational creature.
Olof. There is something more, surely?
Gert. What could there be?
Olof. They are possessed!
Gert. Of the Spirit, yes! It is the storm calling through them! Take heed if you come in its path!
Olof. It must be stopped! I shall go to the King!
Gert. Olof! You and I should be friends! Does not your mother live in Stockholm?
Olof. You know she does!
Gert. Do you know that my daughter Kristina is living with your mother?

(from Act I of Master Olof, by August Strindberg, trans C.D Locock, 1931.)

This was Strindberg's first major play, written when he was only 23, in 1872. It wasn't performed until 1881. (In the meantime Strindberg had kept rewriting it and in 1878 recast it in verse. But the earliest version was the one used for the first performance, and generally most admired. That's the one translated here and in the 1915 translation by Edwin Bjorkman, which is available online:

Olof's horror reflects the general view of Anabaptists at the time. The term itself was invented by their enemies: it means "those who baptize again", which of course isn't how the Anabaptists saw it; they regarded infant baptism as invalid.

The Schleitheim Confession is absolute in its declaration of pacifism and civil obedience. Nevertheless, Anabaptism came to be identified with ultra-radical reformers, its name aroused great fear and its adherents were persecuted by Catholic and Protestant alike.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2018


Fredrik Barth: An Intellectual Biography, by Thomas Hylland Eriksen (Norwegian text 2013, author's English translation 2015)

A book I picked up last week in a charity shop in Yate and have just finished; I found it thrilling. But not because I knew anything about anthropology: in fact this was a marvellous way of learning something about it.

Fredrik Barth (1928-2016) was an ethnographer renowned for his wide-ranging fieldwork, and a social anthropologist with a strongly empirical belief in observing behaviour, and in society as a dynamic and unstable entity that is best studied through the actions and local notions of individuals: generative processual analysis.

His Wikipedia entry begins by calling him a formalist, but this needs to be understood in the specific sense used in social anthropology to distinguish substantivists (system-oriented, studying systemic processes) and formalists (actor-oriented, studying agent transactions). (An opposition Barth himself regarded as not very helpful.)

Barth was instrumental in building up Norway's impressive tradition of social anthropology.

"...Fieldwork is very time intensive. Since the anthropologist in the field ideally does not ask leading questions, but waits for informants themselves to raise interesting issues, speeding up data collection is not recommended. When the ethnographer speaks with their informants, they try to have an ordinary conversation with them, and the informants may well ask as many questions as the anthropologist. They, too, may be interested in understanding another culture...

..In addition, anthropologists do not assume that listening to what people have to say is enough. They also need to see what people actually do. Generally, therefore, there are two kinds of data in ethnographic fieldwork: interview data based on conversations between ethnographer and informant; and observational data, including informal conversations between informants. Regrettably, contemporary anthropological research is increasingly dominated by interview data, which can quickly be collected through conversations, and which can relatively easily be edited and written out -- unlike social interaction and other kinds of observational data, which must be understood, contextualized and, not least, translated into language. This shift towards interview data is probably largely a result of time constraints and the mounting pressure to publish fast and in large quantities.

Barth's anthropology is, perhaps more than anything else, a demonstration of the importance of making observations ..."

Barth's fieldwork:

1. Among farmers near Sollia in central Norway (1950).  This was home territory for Barth; as a teenager he had several stays in nearby Engerdal during the occupation. Barth treated this assignment as a trial exercise, to find out if he was cut out for the demanding work of field ethnography.

2. Among Kurds in the Zagros mountains and Mesopotamian plains (1951), investigating social organization in relation to the different social forms of kinship-based mountain autonomy and plains feudalism. "Barth was not yet 23 when he returned from Kurdistan in the autumn of 1951, but he had set out a course for himself and even deviated from a couple of conventions in the main currents of the anthropology of the day. At this time, anthropologists tended to study single societies, while Barth had done short stints of fieldwork in several villages with a view to discerning variation and producing comparative analyses. Additionally, he had an interest in individuals and their strategies, which was unfashionable on both sides of the Atlantic, for slightly different reasons..."

3. In Solør, near Kirkenær on the Norwegian/Swedish border, studying social organization of the Romani in Scandinavia (summer 1952).

4. In the Pashto-speaking Swat valley in the essentially ungoverned territory of NE Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan (1954). Barth's research concerned political leadership and stability in stateless societies ; i.e. without a central authority, monopoly of violence, etc. Barth prepared by learning Pashto; he was taught by the linguist Georg von Munthe af Morgenstierne. His research shone a light on conflictual strategies for ambitious landowners (and, accordingly, unpredictable outcomes). He also studied the relationship of saint and landowner, two forms of power that can benefit each other. Because of the region's strict gender segregation his work was exclusively in a male context. A trip into mountain territory beyond Swat brought him to a borderland between Pathans, Kohistanis and Gurjars, between feudalism and nomadism, between the subcontinent and central Asia: Barth's interest was in ecological adaptations at cultural frontiers, the development of non-overlapping niches allowing coexistence. Following one of several revisits to Swat, Barth later undertook the biography of the aging wali (prince). (And much later, he was in high demand for his views on the Taliban.)

5. With the Basseri, nomadic pastoralists in Iran (1958). The work was funded by UNESCO, and was founded on the Iranian government's wish to persuade nomads to settle. Barth, however, found that his hosts had a high quality of life: happiness, simplicity, good health, and easygoing ways (no gender segregation here). Besides, they had a cultural antipathy to sedentarism. Rich Basseri often used their surplus wealth to invest in land (there was a practical upper limit on the size of their herds), but they leased it out and had no desire to settle on it themselves. (Eriksen makes the point that nomadic pastoralism evolved only after sedentary farming; it was in the latter context that animals were first domesticated.)

6. On fishing-boats out of Møre in NW Norway (with Ingrid Rudie) (1961-ish). Interaction of status (skipper, fishermen, net-boss) with role behaviour and strategic choice.

7. At Darfur in S. Sudan (1964 ish), investigating economic spheres in Fur agricultural communities; i.e. where goods can be exchanged within one sphere, but not for goods in the other sphere. (Much later, from 2003 onwards, Darfur has become the scene of terrible conflict, indeed genocide.)

8. With the Baktaman in the New Guinea highlands. (1968) The Baktamans consisted of only 183 individuals, and had been "contacted" only four years previously. It rained nearly every day. Life expectancy was low, apparently due partly to violence and partly to diseases that would be easily cured elsewhere. The cultural centre of the men's world was a life-series of seven secret initiations; women were excluded and viewed with suspicion. As a grown man, Barth was fast-tracked to the fourth grade and eventually underwent the seventh. Barth's interest was in knowledge-systems but his approach was actor-oriented: "by bringing his own understanding as closely as possible to the actors, their interpretations and their actions, in order to discern what rituals actually meant to them. With the native point of view as his point of departure, he would then try to find out exactly which aspects of the rituals enabled them to express their inherent meaning-content". Their life had changed little in perhaps 10,000 years, and Barth admitted "they have a ritual life which is teeming with activity, and yet, after a short while I could feel that it was excruciatingly boring". The rituals gave significance to Baktaman existence; "The rituals of initiation establish contact between the novices and abstract entities such as invisible spirits, emotions and inner power, the cosmos and the inevitability of death..." Yet "What troubled him most was the feeling that they based their seven-layered mystery cult around an insight -- the ultimate truth -- which at the end of the day turned out to be fraudulent. At the lower grades, novices were fed secret truths, only to be told, when they reached the higher grades, that they were untrue. And the big truth, which was to be imparted at the seventh grade, did not exist".(Barth returned in 1981, initially to advise on the cultural consquences of gold-mining in this once isolated area. The modern world had arrived in spades: wage work, mass-produced goods, cyanide poisoning, and football. He did some more fieldwork with his wife Unni Wikan, comparing the cosmologies of the Baktaman and the seven other Mountain Ok groups.)

9. At Sohar in Oman, with Unni Wikan (1974). About the dynamics of complexity and boundary maintenance in a highly plural society. Barth's focus on the close and observable, Eriksen suggests, fell short of the challenge in Sohar, where transnational groups, e.g. Indians living only part of their lives in Sohar,inhabited social worlds that only partially interacted, and where full understanding of an individual's social network would involve much that was not locally observable.

10. Initially a study of Muslim and Hindu villages in the Buleleng province of Bali, with Unni Wikan (intermittently, from 1983 - 1988); subsequently a broader account of diversity and internal variation in another highly complex environment. "Bali was arguably a pleasant place to be, yet Barth has described fieldwork there as extremely tiring. The reason is, paradoxically, the very friendliness of the Balinese. He experienced it as intensely social and the hospitality as exhausting. Since an anthropologist depends on the goodwill of their informants and has to use themselves as a research instrument, it was difficult to get away; it was nearly impossible to be left alone. Besides, Balinese culture was ritualized in such a way that one always had to stay calm in social settings. Gestures and displays of emotion were considered an indication that one was out of balance."

11. In Bhutan, with Unni Wikan (intermittently, from 1989 - 1994). In the end Barth never published from the Bhutan fieldwork. Eriksen reports a conversation with Barth: "He peered at me above his glasses and answered that it had been dreadfully tiring. 'It is the Middle Ages, you know, and the Middle Ages can be pretty uncomfortable'. Then he spoke in some detail about the Bhutanese passion for lukewarm tea with rancid butter in it".

Eriksen's book was written while his friend Barth was still living; though now in his late eighties, and in sheltered accommodation. Perhaps that accounts for the deeply engaging mixture of fondness, respect and honest criticism.


Fredrik Barth, "Overview: Sixty Years in Anthropology":

Scandinavian academics and intellectuals tend to be fluent in English, and (depending on the audience) often choose to write in it. Barth's overview is in his own English. Likewise Eriksen translated his own book about Barth into English. Regular readers may recall that I recently read the Estonian poet Jaan Kaplinski in English... Again, the translation was his own.

On close reading, none of them writes quite like someone for whom English is their mother tongue: you'll probably spot instances in the quotations. In fact this is what the Finnish poet Leevi Lehto called "second-language English". Lehto exploited it consciously and with a sense of fun. The others were not doing this, but their language equally deserves attention, not as something lesser than perfectly idiomatic or "correct" English, but as a widened English that can often enrich careful readers by its expression of Scandinavian (or Baltic) ways of thinking.

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Friday, November 02, 2018

from Coleridge's to Wordsworth's

Today, sunny and clear, I walked from Coleridge's cottage in Nether Stowey over the brow of the Quantocks to Alfoxden Hall near Holford.

This was the surprisingly grand (though now derelict) house leased by the Wordsworths, for the peppercorn rent of £23 per annum,  in July 1797. They left on 25th June 1798 after receiving notice to quit (the St Albyns remaining concerned about Wordsworth's revolutionary sympathies despite Thomas Poole's assurances).

Coleridge, with his wife Sara and baby  son Hartley, had moved into 35 Lime Street in January 1797.. or maybe late December 1796...  (he rented it from Poole, his friend and patron). He eventually gave up the house in October 1799, after his return from ten months in Germany.

Hartley had been born on 19th September 1796. Sara had a miscarriage in 1797, and on May 14th 1798 gave birth to Berkeley Coleridge. Pretty Berkeley suffered (and caused) great distress after a faulty smallpox innoculation; then got consumption. Berkeley died in February 1799. Coleridge missed all this; he and the Wordsworths set sail from Yarmouth on 16th September 1798), and now he was studying in Germany (with the idea, as he conceived it, of being better able to support his family).

It's been remarked that it was really Sara who ran the cottage; a life of drudgery, children, damp, vermin and a lodger. Meanwhile Samuel enjoyed the long walks on the Quantocks, the almost daily Wordsworth visits, the residence in Germany... Though it should be added that he also did stints as a supply preacher as far away as the Midlands. (Coleridge seems to have been alternately super-energetic and utterly prostrated; probably he was bipolar.)

Prior to taking up residence at Nether Stowey, Coleridge had assured Poole that he intended to spend his days on practical horticulture, to do without a servant, and to work very hard indeed... that he no longer cared for society and that literature would always be for him only a "secondary object".

Poets are selfish creatures, especially needy ones like Coleridge. Anyway, he did write some rather special poems at Nether Stowey: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, This Lime-tree Bower my Prison, The Nightingale, Frost at Midnight, Kubla Khan, the first part of Christabel... On visits to Alfoxden he wrote Fears in Solitude and the Ode to Liberty.

At Alfoxden Dorothy wrote her first journal (20th January 1798 - 22nd May 1798) Her brother wrote, among other things, The Ruined Cottage (begun at Racedown), A Night Piece, The Discharged Soldier, The Old Cumberland Beggar, Lines Written at a Small Distance from my House, Goody Blake and Harry Gill, The Thorn, The Idiot Boy, Lines Written in Early Spring, Anecdote for Fathers, We are Seven, Simon Lee, The Last of the Flock, Peter Bell, and  The Tables Turned.

These poems (most of them) constituted the folky heart of Lyrical Ballads (1798). After leaving Alfoxden on 25th June 1798, the Wordsworths had no permanent home of their own. They stayed until July 2nd at Nether Stowey, then moved on to other friends, short-stay lodgings and walking tours until the voyage to Germany. William wrote "Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey",  the capstone of Lyrical Ballads, between the 10th and 13th July 1798, during a four-day walking tour in the Wye valley. Cottle published Lyrical Ballads in mid-September. William, meanwhile, seems to have had a break from composition;  his next dated poem is "There was a boy", written in Oct-Nov 1798 after settling in Goslar.

I looked all this up later. On the walk itself, untroubled by knowledge, I thought of other things than poetry.

My heathy stroll along the Coleridge Way is not the regular route that the poets took to visit each other. They took the more direct route along the road, a distance of only three miles rather than nearly five. But that would be an unpleasant walk today, all along the busy A39.

But both poets would have roamed up here. Coleridge was an inveterate hiker, despite his complete indifference to historical aspects of a landscape. To "walk in the footsteps of Coleridge" is to adopt a totally different attitude than Coleridge's own.

In hindsight, I feel I saw the same view across the Bristol Channel that Coleridge hoped Charles Lamb would relish.

And on my return journey Holford Combe was indeed a "roaring dell", not because of a waterfall but because a helicopter pilot was practising sub-skyline hovering.

The shaded waterfall described in "This Lime-tree Bower My Prison" and in Dorothy's journal is actually downstream from the Combe, lying between Holford village and Alfoxden Hall in steep Holford Glen. I must have passed close to it, but the waterfall (a popular topic of Victorian guidebooks) is no longer easy to see or access, due to loss of an old bridge.

Coleridge's cottage at Nether Stowey

Alfoxden Hall, home of the Wordsworths in 1797-1798

The spelling "Alfoxton" is used today. The house is also called Alfoxton House. 

Holford Church, near Alfoxden Hall

View of the Bristol Channel from the Quantocks

Bilberry stems ("ris" in Swedish), 2nd November 2018

Western Gorse and Bell Heather, 2nd November 2018

Sheep's Fescue, 2nd November 2018

Sheep's Fescue, 2nd November 2018

False-Brome, 2nd November 2018

Holly trees

They, meanwhile, 
Friends, whom I never more may meet again, 
On springy heath, along the hill-top edge, 
Wander in gladness, and wind down, perchance, 
To that still roaring dell, of which I told; 
The roaring dell, o'erwooded, narrow, deep, 
And only speckled by the mid-day sun; 
Where its slim trunk the ash from rock to rock 
Flings arching like a bridge;—that branchless ash, 
Unsunn'd and damp, whose few poor yellow leaves 
Ne'er tremble in the gale, yet tremble still, 
Fann'd by the water-fall! 

(From "This Limetree Bower My Prison". Lamb's visit took place on 7th-14th July 1797. He walked with the Wordsworths, who were visiting from Racedown, Coleridge being confined to his home for the whole week after "dear Sara accidently emptied a skillet of boiling milk on my foot" (letter to Southey, c. 17th July 1797) .)

I heard a thousand blended notes, 
While in a grove I sate reclined, 
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts 
Bring sad thoughts to the mind. 

To her fair works did Nature link 
The human soul that through me ran; 
And much it grieved my heart to think 
What man has made of man. 

Through primrose tufts, in that green bower, 
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths; 
And ’tis my faith that every flower 
Enjoys the air it breathes...

(Lines Written in Early Spring)

Bright sunshine, went out at 3 o'clock. The 
sea perfectly calm blue, streaked with deeper colour by 
the clouds, and tongues or points of sand ; on our 
return of a gloomy red. The sun gone down. The 
crescent moon, Jupiter, and Venus. The sound of the 
sea distinctly heard on the tops of the hills, which we 
could never hear in summer. We attribute this partly 
to the bareness of the trees, but chiefly to the absence of 
the singing of birds, the hum of insects, that noiseless 
noise which lives in the summer air. 1 The villages 
marked out by beautiful beds of smoke. The turf fading 
into the mountain road. The scarlet flowers of the moss

(Dorothy Wordsworth, 23rd January 1798)


Eavan Boland on the Wordsworths at Alfoxden and the poem "To my sister", originally titled "Lines written at a Small Distance from my house,  and sent by my little boy to the person to whom they are addressed".

The little boy, named Edward both in this poem and in "Anecdote for Fathers", was Basil Montagu, the son of a widowed friend of the same name. Young Basil's unexplained presence at Alfoxden was another source of disquiet to the St Albyns.

Basil the elder, later a pioneer of bankruptcy reform and a founder member of the RSPCA, was one of the five  illegitimate children of the 4th Earl of Sandwich with the singer Martha Ray (his wife was insane). Martha was murdered by a jealous admirer in 1779. Wordsworth oddly adopts the name Martha Ray for the protagonist of his enigmatic poem "The Thorn", written in March-April 1798 after being struck by the appearance  of a lone thorn-bush in miserable weather while walking on the Quantocks with Dorothy and little Basil (Dorothy's journal, March 19th 1798). It's odd, I mean, if you reflect that the real Martha was little Basil's grandmother, but Martha in the poem is pictured as insane from grief and perhaps guilty of infanticide.

Perhaps this was inadvertent. There was no special reason that Wordsworth would know the name of his friend's long-dead mother, and some reasons why he might not.  "Martha Ray" joins a set of metrically similar names in the Lyrical Ballads: Goody Blake, Harry Gill, Simon Lee, Betty Foy, Susan Gale and (in this poem) Stephen Hill. Evidently this patterning was deliberate.
Wordsworth may have come up with the name independently, or forgotten where he had heard it before. Nevertheless, reading "The Thorn" must have given the elder Basil rather a jolt.



"Sara Coleridge: Wife of an Opium-Eater" by Cheryl Bolen.

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Thursday, November 01, 2018

Making our decisions

The election of another internet troll in another of the world's big democracies prompts the thought, What's going wrong with democracy? Though, of course, it also prompts the thought that dictatorships would be worse. At least the trolls can be moved on, one day.

And if one sought for grains of hope, one might feel that these trolls are more virtual fascists than real ones. They talk big and they do harm but they don't, so far, do genocide.

The people deciding for the people... It sounds good. But the intrinsic weaknesses of democracy become exacerbated under pressures such as our century is feeling. No system is perfect; the majority can use democracy to oppress minorities; and sometimes minorities, holding the balance of power, can lead majorities by the nose. Voters are prone to being controlled by demagogues; equally, they are prone to alienation and apathy; voters may vote irresponsibly, to vent and avenge; voters who feel ignorant vote for a programme that justifies their ignorance, as trolls always do.

Suffrage is not universal, and this seems wrong in some respects; fourteen-year-olds would make better decisions than some of their elders.

Government doesn't only concern people, yet only people have a say. With increasing urgency, the decisions made by democracies concern the whole of nature. It's a little impractical to give votes to animals or plants. And if we did, maybe they would vote for Bolsonaro anyway. Turkeys vote for Christmas, as the saying goes, and ostriches bury their heads in the sand. Of course these fables are really talking about human behaviour.

One justification of limited suffrage has been that voters need knowledge. Democracy is predicated on education, an awareness of bigger pictures (including the environment). But we live in a time when education is suspected, when the unpalatable responsibilities promoted by educated people can be thrown off, as the trolls assure us. So between apathy and revenge, democracies become irrational. The ballot box becomes a proxy battlefield, a new conduit for the human instinct for war.

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