Thursday, November 29, 2018

In NYorks

The lock at Ferrybridge undergoing repair in 1906. The bottle kiln in background was on Brotherton side of river, known as Glass House Yard.


Of all the books I'm in the middle of reading, perhaps the record-holder is Smollett's Peregrine Pickle ; the bookmark is my rail-ticket from September 1997. Yet in those twenty years I've only managed to reach the hero's unedifying attendance at Oxford, about a fifth of the way through. The reason for this glacial progress is that the book is at my friend's house in Yorkshire, a place I've visited all too rarely and briefly. Now, however, I'm here for a whole week!


On Blakey Ridge, the wind pouring up from Farndale in a steady, incessant assault on our cheeks and lips, which feel rubberized. The grouse glide and drop with a noise like clockwork running down. We're zigzagging along the old railway track. It was built to transport ironstone from Rosedale to Teesside. The population of Rosedale mushroomed from 200 to 4,000.Today it's back to 200.

[A fire at the inn; Peregrine has rescued his beloved Emilia, and his servant Pipes has rescued Emilia's cousin Sophy.]

Sophy observed that now Mr. Pickle had an indisputable claim to her cousin's affection; and therefore she ought to lay aside all affected reserve for the future, and frankly avow the sentiments of her heart. Emily retorted the argument, putting her in mind, that by the same claim Mr. Pipes was entitled to the like return from her. Her friend admitted the force of the conclusion, provided she could not find means of satisfying his deliverer in another shape; and, turning, to the valet, who happened to be present, asked if his heart was not otherwise engaged. Tom, who did not conceive the meaning of the question, stood silent according to custom; and the interrogation being repeated, answered, with a grin, “Heart-whole as a biscuit, I'll assure you, mistress.”—“What!” said Emilia, “have you never been in love, Thomas?”—“Yes, forsooth,” replied the valet without hesitation, “sometimes of a morning.”
Peregrine could not help laughing, and his mistress looked a little disconcerted at this blunt repartee: while Sophy, slipping a purse into his hand, told him there was something to purchase a periwig. Tom, having consulted his master's eyes, refused the present, saying, “No, thank ye as much as if I did;” and though she insisted upon his putting it in his pocket, as a small testimony of her gratitude, he could not be prevailed upon to avail himself of her generosity; but following her to the other end of the room, thrust it into her sleeve without ceremony, exclaiming, “I'll be d—d to hell if I do.” Peregrine, having checked him for his boorish behaviour, sent him out of the room, and begged that Miss Sophy would not endeavour to debauch the morals of his servant, who, rough and uncultivated as he was, had sense enough to perceive that he had no pretension to any such acknowledgment. But she argued, with great vehemence, that she should never be able to make acknowledgment adequate to the service he had done her, and that she should never be perfectly easy in her own mind until she found some opportunity of manifesting the sense she had of the obligation: “I do not pretend,” said she, “to reward Mr. Pipes; but I shall be absolutely unhappy, unless I am allowed to give him some token of my regard.”
Peregrine, thus earnestly solicited, desired, that since she was bent upon displaying her generosity, she would not bestow upon him any pecuniary gratification, but honour him with some trinket, as a mark of consideration; because he himself had such a particular value for the fellow, on account of his attachment and fidelity, that he should be sorry to see him treated on the footing of a common mercenary domestic. There was not one jewel in the possession of this grateful young lady, that she would not have gladly given as a recompense, or badge of distinction, to her rescuer; but his master pitched upon a seal ring of no great value that hung at her watch, and Pipes, being called in, had permission to accept that testimony of Miss Sophy's favour. Tom received it accordingly with sundry scrapes; and, having kissed it with great devotion, put it on his little finger, and strutted off, extremely proud of his acquisition.

(1758 revised edition Ch XXVII, equivalent to Ch XXX in the original text of 1751)


In Hovingham, on the Howardians. The baker, who is Swedish, has a poster of spice plants on the wall, titled "Nyttoväxter" i.e. useful plants. "Kryddpeppar" is Allspice (Pimenta officinalis), beloved in Swedish cookery. Rain threatens. A dark afternoon; we drove to Castle Howard but didn't get as far as the lake, instead we listened to the rain hammering on the roof of the garden centre, now in full-on Xmas mode. "Highland Spruce". A few streaks of rose and golden light at sunset.

[Pepper, an Indo-Aryan word that has meant many things. Even today, "pepper" means two entirely different ingredients in our kitchens. "Peppercake" means gingerbread or similar in many Germanic and Scandinavian languages, and even in northern British dialects. Peppermint is a natural hybrid between spearmint and water mint; apparently the name refers to its extra pungency compared with spearmint.]


Peregrine Pickle is a novel about the wellborn, the "people of condition", which is very apparent in the extract above where they are talking with some limited good sense about the anthropology of servants. Our reaction is typically mixed. Peregrine is not, on the whole, a lovable hero. When roguery is being performed by a wellborn hero (unlike Roderick Random in that respect), we become a bit more unsettled.  Then there's the connection with, the almost-plagiarism of Tom Jones. Smollett subjects the beefcake hero to a kind of critical torsion; how far can you twist this, and what's exposed?

Or is PP a Bildungsroman? Peregrine goes abroad and learns the difficult lesson of other cultural behaviours: for example, that a woman who publicly announces that she's leaving the room to have a wee is not necessarily available for sex with him.

In Ch XXXIV of the original edition, Peregrine and Godfrey go to take their revenge on the farmer's wife who "tricked" Godfrey (I.e. pretended to welcome his advances in order to lure him into her husband's hands). They plan to tie her up with her posterior sticking out of the window. But in the event Godfrey offers another way to make up their quarrel, and the farmer's wife agrees ("consents" doesn't seem the right word). Meanwhile Peregrine has a tumble with the maid. Neither  seems at all concerned about the ethics of this; nor does Godfrey seem bothered that Peregrine is the accepted lover of his sister. Smollett suppressed the episode when he revised the novel.

Smollett prefixed the story, "not but that they gave a loose to their gallantry without much interesting their affections, and amused themselves with little intrigues, which, in the opinion of a man of pleasure, do not affect his fidelity to the acknowledged sovereign of his soul ..."

Among the upper classes they had "certain notions of honour, which they never presumed to infringe, and therefore, no domestic tragedies took rise from their behaviour.

Among the lower class of people, they did not act with the same virtuous moderation, but laid close siege to every buxom country damsel that fell in their way; imagining that their dalliance with such Dulcinea's could produce no fatal effects; and that it would be in their power to attone for any damage the inamoratas might sustain. "

Smollett's version of Fielding's double irony leaves us uncomfortable, but it has the merit of being very revealing of class attitudes. The two authors are very different. Fielding delights in addressing the reader at relaxed length. Smollett, on the other hand, never steps away from the story at all;  instead, he pulls everything into it. One of Fielding's recurrent themes is attacking mealy-mouthed hypocrisy. Smollett, I think, isn't interested in that theme.


At Jervaulx. Wind blowing through our trouser pockets. The Monks' Frater, the Lay Brothers, the Chapter House, the meat kitchen, dorter walls; Cistercian. Benedictine previously?

Driving up Coverdale, the car-windows weeping. Vee-lined sheep in movement on the dark wall of a fellside. Penhill, Pennyghent, Brythonic, Aella at Craik, Elmet. Farmer with her sheepdogs.

Roulston Scar. Paths wet, gorse flowering, sour late bilberries. The heavens unsettled, a kaleidoscope of weather. Looking at it, and in it.


Saturday, November 24, 2018

Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica)

Continuing my series of shrubs in late November! Actually this one deserves to be called a tree, just about.

Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), growing on the eastern slope of Cley Hill near Warminster, on the chalky soil it likes best.

The berries are said to be mildly toxic, so not a jam opportunity...

Not to be confused with the red-then-black berries of Alder Buckthorn (extremely toxic) or the orange berries of Sea-buckthorn (edible and very useful).

After diligent searching I managed to find some leaves still clinging on.

In Sweden, buckthorn is called getapel, i.e. goat-apple. According to Den virtuella floran, this is because the leaves are somewhat similar to crab-apple, and the inside of the bark is fibrous and reminiscent of goat-hair. 


The word used is "getragg". "Ragg" is one of those Swedish words, like "ris", that has no precise equivalent in English. It is an animal-hair word, that is, it embodies the insight of people that lived closely with animals,  that those animals require their own set of terms: that one doesn't simply or always transfer analogous and even homologous terms from the human arena, such as "hair", but may instead use fleece, coat, fur, mane, pelt... "Ragg", used especially of goats, wolves, elk, musk-ox, seems toconnote bristly, wiry, twisted, perhaps shaggy, or sometimes woolly...). [It's earliest appearance in the SAOB comes from our old friend Olaus Petri, i.e. Master Olof...]

Once such a word as "ragg" is established, it can then be used of humans too, but always with a beastly connotation. For example, of one's own unkempt beard, implying that it needs a good tidy-up. 

The idiom "av samma ragg" is equivalent to English "of the same stripe". You could call it dismissive collectivization; such terms are often used in politics. "The PC brigade", "and the like", "of the same ilk", "of that persuasion"... (I was going to say, "politics of the pubby sort", which of course would be a great example of dismissive collectivization in its own right.)

The implication of all these idioms is that what can be categorized is not worth taking seriously. Individuals who fit into a group are already under deep suspicion of not thinking for themselves; moreover -- to speak legally -- they're subject to precedent and hence very vulnerable to the dismissive adverb "just". ... Just naysayers, just snowflakes, just whingers... Case dismissed!

Friday, November 23, 2018

Erin Mouré

I was trying to educate myself in the poetry of Erin Mouré, but I hadn't found it all that easy... There's lots of audio/video/image material online, but not so much text. When you're going easy on the data downloads it just has to be text.

Besides, she's quite an uncontainable poet: when it's her writing, it's often someone else's too. When it's her poetry, it might also be literary theory.  Many of her writings are in more than one language. Even her name has no definite spelling. And all this is the point, obviously.

Anyway, I did find this.

XX The Humber is pretty fabulous, really

The Humber is more fabulous than the creek under my avenue.
And the Humber is no more fab than the creek under my avenue.
You can't mix up the two when on my avenue;
For that matter neither of them are very big…

The Humber is too small for ships
Yet on its waters they still ply
For those who see the "not there" in all things:
The memory of canoes.

The Humber descends from up north
And the Humber enters Lake Ontario.
You always hear people say this on buses in the afternoon.
But few know the creek that races under Winnett
And where it heads
And where it came from.
And, as such, because fewer people claim it,
The creek of my avenue is more grand and free.

You can take the Humber out almost to Niagara Falls;
Beyond the Humber is America
Where fortunes are made.
No one ever thinks about what's beyond
the creek under Winnett Avenue.

The creek under my avenue makes no one think of anything.
Whoever goes to the edge of it has only reached the curb.

From Sheep's Vigil by a Fervent Person (2011)

This collection transforms the poetry of Albert Caeiro, himself one of Fernando Pessoa's heteronyms, the one who wrote "bad Portuguese".

(Sourced from rob mclennan's blog ,


And then, as a last resort I tried PoemHunter... and there were 28 poems, including eight of the Little Theatres (2005) ! So here's one:

Theatre of the Hope of a Cebola (Santiso)

On the hill there is no hay
but rain

no hay for a hayrick but
small rivulets singing the grass down

An onion has toppled off a high cart
the chest of the high cart has gone on past the hill

if pressed with a shoe an onion toppled
may take root

Will a shoe ever find it
how can we know

will the onion find a mouth to eat it
how can we ever know

In the channels of water :
small blue rivulets of blue.

PoemHunter, I should explain, is not the place you'd normally go to for poetry by linguistically innovative poets. It's impressive that Erin is here in such quantity. But this is only an aspect of her work: it isn't representative of the whole. Or maybe, in a way, it is. I'll go on thinking about that.

In the mean time, here are some other glimpses:

Excerpts from O Cadoiro :

Sections 1 - 6 of "The Acts", from Furious (1988) :

Barbara Berman's review of Planetary Noise: Selected Poetry of Erin Mouré :

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Thursday, November 22, 2018

Wayfaring-tree (Viburnum lantana)

Wayfaring-tree (Viburnum lantana). Native and common in southern England and the midlands. Prefers basic soils.

Not native to Sweden, hence named "Parkolvon" ("Olvon" being V. opulus, the Guelder-rose)

Linnaeus gave it the specific name "lantana",  which was the name of the wayfaring-tree in late Latin (adopted from Italian dialect).

["Lantana" was later re-used as the name of a tropical New World genus in the verbena family. Lantana camara, the multi-coloured bedding-plant-turned-invader of Mediterranean coastlines, has quite similar-looking leaves to V. lantana.]

These photos were taken on a frosty 22nd November 2018 in Frome. Afterwards I felt I should have photographed the fruits too, so here they are, a couple of days later:

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

a shot of high culture

When I got back from eight weeks of vagabondism round Europe, with the only music my own rough guitar, and the bright radio  in overnight motorway toilets... Well, I felt half-feral so far as high culture was concerned. So when I visited family in Sussex I made the most of my opportunities.

Half delirious from lack of sleep, I just made it to my sister Annika's birthday lunch and her treat for me:  "Mozart's Court: Opera arias & Chamber music" at the Kino-Teatr in St Leonards-on-Sea (part of the new Hastings Early Music Festival). I'll never forget the rush of feeling, of something like relief, or return, when the Rautio Piano Trio struck up their arrangement of the overture to The Marriage of Figaro.

Then Kirsty Hopkins stepped up for "Un moto di gioia" (also from Figaro), and thus we were off, for an afternoon of trio movements interspersed with arias and extracts from Mozart's letters. According to the programme, these piano trios were written around the same time as the operas.

I find Mozart both familiar and enigmatic, like memories of childhood, like scenes I attended but am no nearer to understanding. It's no disrespect to this music, quite the opposite, to confess that at length, in one of the Kino's comfy chairs, I began to drift through lost times...

Overture to The Marriage of Figaro [YouTube].
"Un moto di gioia" (Susanna), from The Marriage of Figaro [YouTube].
"The soprano feels a moment of joy in her heart which tells her that happiness is on the way despite her fears and worry. Fate and love are not always tyrants, she says knowingly." (From the concert programme.)
Trio in C KV 548, Allegro [YouTube].
"Deh vieni non tardar" (Susanna), from The Marriage of Figaro [YouTube].
"Susanna is dressed up as the Countess and pretends to sing a rapturous love song to the Count but the aria is not 'fake' because she's really singing it to Figaro. The aria is full of sensual references to nature: ''Here, everything entices one to love's pleasures. Come, my dear, among these hidden plants. Come, come! I want to crown you with roses'."
Trio in G KV 564, Andante [YouTube].
"Batti, batti" (Zerlina), from Don Giovanni [YouTube]. "In Don Giovanni, after Zerlina is accused of cheating by her fiancé, Masetto, she sings her flirty aria 'Batti, batti o bel Masetto', teasing him by asking him to punish her, beat her, and pull her hair."
Trio in G KV 496, Allegretto [YouTube].
"Vedrai, carino" (Zerlina), from Don Giovanni [YouTube]. The flirty Zerlina promises to soothe her fiance's bruises after he's been beaten up. All he needs to do is put his hand on her beating heart, and he'll feel better (but is she really talking about her heart?!)."
Trio in B flat KV 502, Larghetto [YouTube].
"Ah! Chi mi dice mai" (Donna Elvira), from Don Giovanni [YouTube]. "Donna Elvira, one of Don Giovanni's conquests, gives voice to her anger at being abandoned and vows revenge - 'Ah, who will ever tell me where that scoundrel is for whom I loved and disgraced myself... I will rip his heart out!'."
Trio in B flat KV 502, Allegro [YouTube].
"Porgi, amor" (Countess), from The Marriage of Figaro [YouTube]. "In this heart-breaking aria at the beginning of Act 2 of The Marriage of Figaro, the noble Countess laments her husband's infidelities. 'O Love, give me some remedy for my sorrow, for my sighs! Either give me back my darling or at least let me die'."
Divertimento Trio in B flat KV254, Adagio [YouTube].
"Ch'io mi scordo di te", concert aria KV 505 [YouTube]. "In this passionate concert aria, the singer speaks directly to her lover 'You ask that I forget you? But how could I attempt to warm myself to another flame, to lavish my affections on another? Ah I should die of grief! Fear nothing, my beloved, my heart will always be yours'. She berates the stars for being so pitiless and invokes 'fair souls' to tell her whether her faithful heart can endure parting."

The Rautio Piano Trio (see them in action):

Jane Gordon, violin
Victoria Simonsen, cello
Jan Rautio, piano


Kirsty Hopkins, Soprano


A week later I was with Annika again, at a free coffee concert in the Baptist Church in Battle: the Hastings Philharmonic Wind Quintet (seasoned professionals all, but I seemed to understand that this was their first gig together as a quintet).

Sofia Castillo, flute
Olivia Stone, oboe
Laurie Truluck, horn
Ben Exell, bassoon
Boyan Ivanov, clarinet

We heard:

Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006), Sea Shanties  (1943). A standard of the WQ repertoire. [YouTube] Early composition, while Arnold was still playing trumpet in the LPO. A prolific composer for movies, depressive and alcoholic, his personal life became more turmoiled as time went by. His light music remains admired, also the twenty concertos (often for instruments that didn't have many), and the more personal symphonies.
J.S. Bach (1685-1750), Goldberg Variations. The aria and about seven of the variations, ingeniously arranged by bassoonist Ben Exell; this worked brilliantly.
Paul Taffanel (1844-1908), Wind Quintet.
(Taffanel, born in Bordeaux, was a celebrated flautist, conductor and instructor. This was the Quintette in G minor, written in 1876, a popular piece in the WQ world.) [YouTube]
Jacques Ibert (1890-1962), Trois pièces brèves. Composed in 1930. Ibert was a prolific, elegant and often light-hearted composer. His music was banned by the Vichy government, his presence in June 1940 on the Massilia, bound for Casablanca along with members of the deposed French government, being framed as "desertion".  They were also inclined to regard him as a Jewish composer -- apparently a mistake.  [YouTube]
Jim Parker (b. 1934 in Hartlepool), From "Mississippi Five". Parker graduated as an oboist. He's best known for his television work, but this is a concert piece for WQ.


This concert was part of an impressive weekend of concerts for the Battle Festival of Arts and Music. The evening before, I went with my Mum and Dad to hear Roman Kosyakov's piano recital at St Mary's Church. (An unexpectedly excellent acoustic!)

We heard:

J. S. Bach, Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor, BWV 903
(We didn't know the piece and it rather took us aback... Bach is full of surprises.) [YouTube]
Franz Schubert (1797-1828), Four Impromptus D 935. The impromptus, eight in all, were composed in 1827. This set, because it begins and ends in F# minor, has sometimes been considered a hidden sonata. I knew some of these quite well, but it's different when it's live. Not that we could see much, despite taking care to sit on the left; everyone else had the same idea. Of course, we were duly impressed by the hand-crossings in No. 1. [YouTube]
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), Preludes Op 23, nos 2,3,4, and 5. No. 5 is the famous G minor Prelude Alla marcia [YouTube].
Samuel Barber (1910-1981), Sonata Op 26. Written in 1949; my personal musical highlight of the whole week; Barber in formidable modernist mode. My word-rhapsodies afterwards (a foggy, clanking Hudson river) possibly didn't persuade Mum and Dad. [YouTube]

What we all agreed was that the 25-year-old Roman Kosyakov was a pretty superb musician. His youth made us notice how old the rest of us were.

Roman Kosyakov, piano (see him in action).

The YouTube links are here to allow me (or anyone else who's interested) to revisit the music I heard. I've mostly gone for concert performances, but of course the musicians are different, sometimes more stellar (Cecilia Bartoli, Brendel, Schiff...). And the Mozart opera extracts are mostly with full orchestra...

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Friday, November 16, 2018

Paul Blackburn scratchpad

Paul Blackburn with Lee Byrd, 1967.

[Image source: Bobby Byrd's blog ( Paul Blackburn was visiting the Byrds in Memphis.]

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  .

East of Eden, from Genesis 4:12 (Cain's dwelling after killing Abel), title of John Steinbeck's novel and Elia Kazan's movie, whose foregrounding of intergenerational conflict resonates in Blackburn's poem.

"East is east and west is west", Poem by Rudyard Kipling.

OH, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!

Somewhere lurking between these quotations is another one. "East of the Sun and West of the Moon" is a Norwegian fairy tale collected in the 19th century (Østenfor sol og vestenfor måne); Brooks Bowman borrowed the title for his 1934 jazz standard.


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:


Something that bothered me in the poem "Spring Thing", which begins thus:

Tomorrow Ramas
                                              & the moon will 
                                              come to full ,
Tonite at 9:25
she had just come over the mountain    .   a few 
light clouds pass quickly over her    ...

Surely the first line is talking about Domingo de Ramos, i.e Palm Sunday ? So maybe just a mistake, then. I can't blame him. One of the many baffling features of Spanish is its habit of giving subtly different meanings to masculine and feminine forms of the same root. "Ramas" is the common word meaning  "branches". "Ramos", however, means e.g branchlets of a main branch, or cut material, or ornamental arrangements such as bouquets. The right word, apparently, for the palm-fronds that carpeted Jesus's procession. 


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, even if not outright raiders, are always 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.

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 even 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 individuals, 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.

Now the sun hardly goes down
just dims its light
the end of dusk becomes the grey of dawn
neither early nor late

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

The lake holds the evening's light
gliding on the mirror of water
or wavering on the waves
that long before they have darkened
reflect the morning sun's fires

Juni natt blir aldrig av,
liknar mest en daggig dag.
Slöjlikt lyfter sig dess skymning
och bärs bort på ljusa hav.

June night never comes
it's most like a dewy day
veil-like it lifts its twilight
and is borne away on the bright sea

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 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 by C.D. Locock in 1931,  and previously by Edwin Bjorkman in 1915; Bjorkman's version is available online:

Mäster Olof: Swedish text.

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.

This was an opinion that appalled Catholic and Protestant churches alike; both saw their legitimacy (not to mention their economy) as founded on the involuntary membership of the entire local population.

The pellucid Schleitheim Confession is absolute in its declaration of pacifism and civil obedience.Yet some Anabaptist groups were prepared to take part in active, even violent, dissent. This, inevitably, became the fearful image of Anabaptism fostered by their opponents.

According to Bjorkman, Strindberg was misled: the Germans Melchior Rink and Bernhard Knipperdolling never came to Stockholm. I'm not even sure they knew each other; the active life of an Anabaptist, i.e. between baptism and life imprisonment (Rink) or execution (Knipperdolling), tended to be brief.

 But the Dutchman Melchior Hoffman did come to Stockholm. Hoffman influenced both streams of Anabaptism. His wilder adherents were involved in the Münster Rebellion (Bernhard Knipperdolling was one of its leaders); these activists were wiped out by a Europe who were completely united in this respect. But Melchior's peaceful disciples seeded movements that somehow survived, in spite of dreadful persecution. For instance Obbe and Dirk Philips; the former ordained Menno Simons in 1537, from whom the Mennonites take their name. Other modern-day groups deriving from Anabaptism include the Amish and the Hutterites.

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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 spadesw with the Ok Tedi gold and copper mine: wage work, mass-produced goods, cyanide poisoning, and football. Barth did some more fieldwork with his wife Unni Wikan, comparing the cosmologies of the Baktaman and the seven other Mountain Ok groups.)

[Afterwards, things got worse. The mine's tailings dam collapsed in 1984, and since then the Ok Tedi mine has been dumping monumental volumes of untreated mining waste straight into the Fly River system. ]

About Ritual and Knowledge among the Baktaman of New Guinea:

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, Nether Stowey, in January 1797, or perhaps 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 he 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. So to "walk in the footsteps of Coleridge" is to adopt a totally different attitude to 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 S. T. Coleridge, "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...

(from William Wordsworth, "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. The villages marked out by beautiful beds of smoke. The turf fading into the mountain road. The scarlet flowers of the moss...

(Dorothy Wordsworth, Alfoxden Journal 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. Reading "The Thorn" must have given the elder Basil rather a jolt.

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.  Wordsworth may have come up with the name independently, or forgotten where he had heard it before. 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 the patterning was intentional.



"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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