Friday, March 29, 2019

Lines written below Tintern Abbey

cliffs, farm, hedgerows, smoke: from Lower Wyndcliff

So I had a wander about Tintern yesterday, and inevitably this happened.

                                               -- Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild and secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.   ...

                                    Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreathes of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees,
And the low copses -- coming from the trees
With some uncertain notice, as might seem,
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,    ...

The coincidence amused me, and I started thinking more narrowly about the locus of Wordsworth's poem. The full title in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads seems quite specific:






July 13, 1798.

The title specifies the locus of the poem's quiet action, the "Here, under this dark sycamore": the scene of William's thoughts and, perhaps, his spoken words to Dorothy. That was a few miles "above" Tintern Abbey.  The word "above" has confused some people, e.g. Philip Shaw on the British Library site. It doesn't refer to elevation (if it did, "a few miles above" would put him at the height of Kilimanjaro!); it means upstream. In fact the poem makes clear that the scene isn't viewed from a high elevation but a low one: "here upon the banks Of this fair river", "on the banks of this delightful stream".

If David S. Miall is correct, the location was Symonds Yat. The basic reasoning is that the poem mentions "these steep and lofty cliffs". There are plenty of cliffs below Tintern Abbey but none above it until Symonds Yat. Besides, it was a well-known viewpoint, illustrated in Gilpin's book and much visited by tourists in search of the picturesque. [This at a stroke renders obsolete much recent speculation that Wordsworth suppressed the extensive industrial activity of Redbrook and Whitebrook, the boisterous river traffic and pollution, the rowdy stevedores of Brockweir (considered "one of the most lawless places in the country"), the beggars who haunted the ruined Abbey, and so on: all those places were much further downstream.]  

David S. Miall: "Locating Wordsworth: "Tintern Abbey" and the Community with Nature" (2009)

Usefully supplemented by the maps, photos and historical material on Brennan L. Saddler's 2017 digital edition:

There's a lot to commend this idea and I basically accept it, with the cautious reflection that we shouldn't be over- literalistic about locating a scene in an imaginative poem. The phrase " a few miles above Tintern Abbey" is quite an indirect way of talking about Symonds Yat, fully 17 miles above Tintern, indeed five miles above Monmouth. Evidently Wordsworth didn't wish his readers to be distracted by anything they might know of Symonds Yat, but wanted them to focus solely on what his poem describes and what it says.

Thrillingly close as "Tintern Abbey" is to actual experience, it certainly does have a fictive element. "Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey..." Readers of the first edition of Lyrical Ballads might believe that claim, but later Wordsworth was quite happy to add this note: "No poem of mine was composed under circumstances more pleasant for me to remember than this. I began it upon leaving Tintern, after crossing the Wye, and concluded it just as I was entering Bristol in the evening, after a ramble of four or five days, with my Sister. Not a line of it was altered, and not any part of it written down till I reached Bristol." He composed the lines, then, while moving down from Tintern Abbey, and actually wrote them in Bristol. (The date 13th July was in fact the date the poem was composed and written down.)

But "Tintern Abbey" is fictive in a more thoroughgoing sense, too. Probably it was at Symonds Yat that Wordsworth saw the topographical details lovingly described in the opening section, for instance the "little lines / Of sportive wood", the "pastoral farm", the smoke rising behind the trees;  probably, too, an apprehension flashed across him, for example a sense of how his experience now was different from his experience in 1793; probably, too, he remarked Dorothy's response to the scene, her "wild eyes", though certainly not for the first or last time. The essence of insight is that it's swifter and more direct than discourse, and always has more integrity. But it's also embryonic: it contains everything, but this everything needs to be unpacked and unless we find words to express it we can't even be fully said to realize its contents ourselves. The poem's long and articulate meditation needed to be drawn out; that process of discovering what you think (or what you think you think), finding the words and images, framing arguments, expanding on examples, heading off miscontructions... : this all came later, during the composition itself. It wasn't at Symonds Yat that Wordsworth e.g. laid his hands on "nature and the language of the sense", progressively understood its role as "anchor", "nurse", "guide", "guardian" and "soul", or considered the "evil tongues, Rash judgements" and "the sneers of selfish men". And composition is not a passive delineation of experience. Who doesn't know that, as we find words for someone dear, and know that they'll soon be reading them, our emotion wells up? The love for Dorothy may have been a flash of affection, something almost latent, at Symonds Yat; the welling up of William's emotion is more accurately to be located on a boat to Bristol.

Wordsworth gave this account of their tour in his Memoirs:

"We left Alfoxden on Monday morning, the 26th of June, stayed with Coleridge till the Monday following, then set forth on foot towards Bristol. We were at Cottle's for a week, and thence we went toward the banks of the Wye. We crossed the Severn Ferry , and walked ten miles further to Tintern Abbey, a very beautiful ruin on the Wye. The next morning we walked along the river through Monmouth to Goodrich Castle there slept, and returned the next day to Tintern, thence to Chepstow and from Chepstow back again in a boat to Tintern, where we slept, and thence back in a small vessel to Bristol..."

So we can put together an itinerary something like this:

DAY 1: 10th July 1798

Walk: Bristol to Pilning (10 miles)
"New Passage" ferry across the Severn.
Walk: Sudbrook to Tintern (10 miles)

DAY 2: 11th July 1798

Walk: Upstream from Tintern to Goodrich Castle (20 miles)
(Likely to have included visiting Symonds Yat.. If not, on the next day... Very possibly both.)

DAY 3: 12th July 1798

Walk: Downstream from Goodrich Castle to Tintern, then on to Chepstow (27 miles).
Boat back upstream to Tintern.

DAY 4: 13th July 1798

Boat from Tintern to Bristol.
"Tintern Abbey" composed.

The only slight doubt concerns this phrase in the note about "Tintern Abbey": I began it upon leaving Tintern, after crossing the Wye... That sounds as if the Wordsworths were on foot. Perhaps they actually walked some way down river before picking up a boat. Or perhaps Wordsworth conflated the two downstream departures from Tintern on days 3 and 4. In which case he might have actually begun the composition in the late afternoon of 12th July, while walking down to Chepstow.

It's often pointed out that though the handy shorthand title "Tintern Abbey" came into immediate use (e.g. by Wordsworth himself), yet apart from in its title the poem makes no reference at all to the Abbey and the action is avowedly elsewhere. Still, the itinerary shows how central Tintern was to William and Dorothy's tour: they were there every day, either arriving at it or departing from it: on Day 3 they were there twice. Tintern was their HQ, their base-camp. The Abbey, that ruinous but so-prominent landmark, seen at different times of day, was a persistent presence during these important days. In that respect its presence in the title of William's poem is understandable. And by then not referring to it in the text, by not describing it, the poem creates a kind of absence that is also an unspoken presence; an absence very different from, say, the absence of Monmouth. It has its place in a poem that is constantly thinking about the invisible, the submerged, the immanent, the not-quite-plainly present: "unremembered", "nameless", "dim", "faint", "half-extinguish'd"...

These reflections on the importance to the poem of, not only Symonds Yat, but e.g. Tintern and downstream from Tintern, where Wordsworth was actually composing his lines, -- these reflections raise the question again about "What happened to all the industry?" But I do wonder if it's more our issue than Wordsworth's. We know far more now about air quality and pollution, and in our own overcrowded and traffic-ridden world we are far more sensitive to disfigurement by such horrors as industry.  But the industry of the Wye valley in 1798 can never have resembled, say, Dickens' nightmarish vision of Birmingham in The Old Curiosity Shop. There was no railway, there were no steamboats, no steam-driven machinery.  The sounds would have been human sounds. The villages were small, with large green spaces between them. If the residents were busy manufacturing, that didn't necessarily seem discordant with pastoral, or even picturesque, expectations. Contrariwise, the Wordsworths wouldn't have been expecting to see an empty countryside: the countryside of their time was not empty. It's the farmed landscape of our own time that is eerily unpeopled, with just one person on a tractor doing the work of fifty peasants. We know that Wordsworth was, for people of his class, unusually sensitive to the trials and sufferings of common people -- not least, in the Lyrical Ballads. (He also wrote disparagingly of heavy industry, in The Excursion.) But I'm not convinced that what he saw in the Wye Valley would have seemed to trouble the engagement with nature that the poem describes. And besides, doesn't the poem find its own way to connect that exhilaration among natural scenes with "the still sad music of humanity"?

Ramsons: a lone variegated individual. 

Wood Sorrel

Brockweir, upstream from Tintern

Tintern Abbey

Mistletoe on hawthorn, with Tintern village in the background


From the "Eagle's Nest" at Lower Wyndcliff


Prunus 'Shirotae'

Prunus 'Shirotae', Wootton Bassett, 29th March 2019

I really thought I'd missed out on Prunus 'Shirotae' this year -- it's the earliest of the Sato Zakura ornamental cherries -- that is, until I caught sight of this beauty on a council estate in Wootton Bassett.

Shirotae has less pink on it than any of the others. It only shows, faintly, on the outside of the buds. The leaves are pure fresh green, with just a brief flush of bronze when they first show.

The flowers are semi-double, often with just a couple of extra petals.. (not that different to Ukon once it has turned white. But Ukon is vase shaped, not flat-topped, and its leaves emerge brownish.)

This tree was growing next to the other one, and I suppose it's another Shirotae but it certainly wasn't so instantly recognizable, and I hesitated. The shape, the pinker buds, the relative lateness and the lack of green leaves... But the blossom looks much the same. Thoughts welcome!

Prunus 'Shirotae'. Beanacre, 30th March 2019.

Another two, in very different surroundings, at Beanacre, near Melksham. Mature tree on the right, and a young one on the left.

Prunus 'Shirotae', buds and new leaves.

Prunus 'Shirotae', flowers and new leaves.

Prunus 'Shirotae', young tree. 


Wednesday, March 27, 2019

the natural history of hardbacks

For the past few weeks my small flat's been invaded by half-a-dozen boxes of natural history books. I was given them following the recent death of a relation and thought I might try my hand at selling them. I thought of selling them myself via Amazon Marketplace, but I baulked at the idea of paying a monthly fee. I also checked out Ziffit, a wonderfully simple system where you scan the barcode and they offer you an immediate price. But this only works for newish books, and not for e.g. the New Naturalists, which I knew were the most collectable part of the collection. Anyway I've ended up going the old-fashioned way of dealing with a specialist bookseller, and tomorrow the books are on their way.

Book collecting is an alien world to me; my own books are for use and don't get well looked after -- Sorry, that sounds pompous. I'd struggle if I was challenged to explain what actual use I put them to -- writing trivial posts like this? learning languages I don't need to know? No, I had better forget that holier-than-thou stance: it's all just hobbyism. It's just that I think books deserve to be read. Well, of course, -- but shouldn't they also be studied and preserved?...  Our engagement with other artefacts can't be prescribed: always there's an act of faith in something we care about, as well as a feeling of self-fulfilment, as well as the sheer pleasure it brings us. Collecting books and reading books are alike in all three aspects.

Anyway, I found it very interesting to learn how to catalogue books in the sort of way that is meaningful to collectors: to write things like "Fading to DJ spine", "Some foxing on page edges", "DJ with some small tears and lacunae", and to correctly use the terms "Very good", "Fine" and "As new".

The essence of selling books for the collectors' market is that you must handle them as little as possible. They must be securely stored in a dry and mildly heated home, and at no risk of direct sunlight. (All very inconvenient when you are stepping round them every day.)

Of course, you must not read them. Now I don't believe there is any book on earth that I couldn't get interested in, but I have been very steadfast about not interesting myself in these. As it happens, most of them belong to a sub-genre of the natural history book of which I have never taken any notice before: wildlife art (flowers, birds, country scenes...). My abiding impression, from the briefest of guilty glances, is the astonishing profusion of human creativity. It's a tropical fauna in its own right, and one we can never hope to do justice to.

The New Naturalists, of course, are quite a different matter: fortunately I'd read many of these volumes before. The one I most regretted not spending more time with is Mountain Flowers by John Raven and Max Walters. I hope I'll get another chance one day.

Anyway, this post is a brief memorial.

 Mountain Flowers by John Raven and Max Walters. One of the famous jacket designs by Clifford and Rosemary Ellis.

(c)  ANGUS

       The next step in our eastward progress is a long one.  I have never been, I am sorry to say, either on Ben-y-Gloe itself or on the steep and rocky slopes above Loch Loch.  The whole of that area deserves a thorough exploration.  The yellow-flowered Oxytropis campestris, which is known elsewhere in Britain only in Glen Fee (see p. 179), is certainly still to be seen near Loch Loch, while Ben-y-Gloe may yet yield an even greater treasure in Rubus arcticus. This relative of the cloudberry seems lately to have been rather too definitely excluded from the British list. According to Smith's English Botany "the late Rev. Dr. Walker, Professor of Natural History at Edinburgh, informs me in the year 1782 of his having gathered this beautiful plant in rocky mountainous parts of the Isle of Mull.  Mr. Sowerby has been favoured by Richard Cotton, Esq., with dry wild specimens from the high regions of Ben y Glo, Blair, in Scotland, which agree with that in our plate." Again, the Report of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh for 1841 records "a specimen, too imperfect to decide, by J. Robertson, from head of Glen Tilt", no great distance from Ben-y-Gloe.  Druce (1920), in his article on "The Dubious Plants of Britain," asks:  "May the dwarf alpine one-flowered form of Geum rivale have been mistaken for it?"  But not only does it seem unlikely that so familiar a British species should have been mistaken, and by competent botanists too, for one so unfamiliar, but there are also, in the herbarium of the British Museum, specimens which were apparently collected in Scotland and which are undoubtedly rightly named. It is hard to resist the conclusion that Rubus arcticus will one day be reinstated in our list, and the exploration of Ben-y-Gloe stands high on my agenda.  But since all that I know of the mountain at present is at best second-hand we must move on eastwards to my next selected area, in the neighbourhood of Caenlochan Glen.

(Mountain Flowers, pp. 173-174, from one of John Raven's chapters).

[Rubus arcticus, the Arctic Brambleberry (Sw: Åkebär) has not been seen since 1850, according to the BSBI atlas, which speculates that the plants might have germinated from seed carried by birds from the arctic, and they were probably barren, like most individuals of this species in the more southerly parts of Scandinavia.]

Green Hairstreak by Gordon Beningfield, from Beningfield's Butterflies.

Early Marsh Orchid, Willowleaf Yellowhead and Flesh-Fly, from Lars Jonsson's Birds.

Willowleaf Yellowhead is Inula salicina (Sw: Krissla), known in the UK as Irish Fleabane. It grows only in SW Ireland, where it is now restricted to a single location. It has thus been considered part of the "Lusitanian" element in our flora. But it certainly isn't a plant of Portugal; on the Iberian peninsula it's more or less restricted to NE Spain. It's really a plant of central and eastern Europe, extending far into Russia. The term is, however, probably correct in implying that the highly anomalous Irish population must have come from the south. Like a number of other species, Inula salicina seems to have a deep aversion to going anywhere near the North Sea. It grows in central and southern Sweden, but is rare. Lars Jonsson's specimen was from Vamlingbo on the Baltic island of Gotland.

The New South Wales Wolf, from Thomas Bewick's A General History of Quadrupeds.

From a reprint of the 1790 edition. Bewick was bang up to date. The Dingo only became known to British settlers in 1788, at Port Jackson.

Stonechat, from Cutting Away: The Linocuts of Robert Gillmor.

Craig Weir, illustration by Keith Brockie, from Polly Pullar, Rural Portraits: Scottish Native Farm Animals, Characters and Landscapes. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

A trivial post

I'm working on some bigger things in the background, so this is frankly a stopgap. For the last few nights, in the last exhausted minutes before sleep, I've been reading two or three poems by Lars Gustafsson, who has become a great favourite of mine. So here he is.

Trivial pieces of knowledge

Olive oil is an outstanding rust remover.

Individual events have no probability.
They are points.

Even I lack probability

The dead don't know
that they ever existed.

Time can't have started with the universe.
Time can't have a beginning.

Because a beginning is always an event.

It's difficult for horses to sleep
if they are left out alone in the night.

Horses guard each other's sleep.

Persons who have a disturbed relationship with their mothers
become poets.

Persons who have a disturbed relationship with their fathers
become boring.

(Source: Presumably a John Irons translation.)

Labels: ,

Sunday, March 24, 2019

On the verge

Hemlock and Cleavers

24th March 2019. The road-verges swelling. Hemlock (Conium maculatum) and Cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) look very similar at this moment.

Anthriscus sylvestris (Cow parsley)
Conium maculatum. Beckington, 24th March 2019.

Anthriscus sylvestris. Beckington, 24th March 2019.

Closer inspection reveals hemlock's wine-dotted stems. Hemlock is hairless whereas cow-parsley is softly hairy on stem and leaf-edges. On hemlock, the lack of hair makes the acicles (sharp tips) of each leaf-lobe seem more prominent.


Anthriscus sylvestris (Cow parsley). Beckington, 24th March 2019.

Young hazel leaves (Corylus avellana). Beckington, 24th March 2019

Fresh elder leaves (Sambucus nigra). Beckington, 24th March 2019

Galium aparine (Cleavers). Beckington, 24th March 2019

Cleavers, also known as Goose-grass and Sticky Willie. The young foliage is edible; my friend told me he made a pesto from a combination of Cleavers and Ramsons (aka Wild Garlic).

When it grows in this sort of burgeoning way, it means nitrogen-rich soil. In this lay-by my first thought was that this growth was nourished by a regular inflow of trucker's wee. But when I went back, I saw this couldn't account for it, and there was a much more obvious factor: drift from the heavily fertilized wheat-fields on the other side of the road.

Galium aparine. Beckington, 8th April 2019.

Galium aparine. Beckington, 8th April 2019.

Labels: ,

Friday, March 22, 2019

Drunk in the dark, they toss the shiny loops

Here's another book I swung by while away from home: Headwaters, a  poetry collection by Rowan Williams from 2008. In my time with the book, I got particularly immersed in the sequence of ten sonnets about Shakespeare plays headed "Shakespeare in Love".

I'm struggling to choose which sonnet to quote when all are so absorbing. But the first and last are certainly indispensable.

1  Romeo and Juliet

Drunk in the dark, they toss the shiny loops
of silk back and forth, tottering around the pinnacles.
They trip and giggle over the tiles, they dare and shout
as the web crosses, spike to starry spike, and they
do not quite see, drunk in the dark, the little knots
twining around their feet. Tongues slur, eyes cloud,
limbs become heavy; the dream clings,
a wet cloth, over faces. So, when it gets light,
there is a web draping the Gothic spears,
damp, streaked with blood and silver, fading
as it warms. And the words caught in its circles
fall to the grass like fractured stone, like crumbs
from broken towers, tiles from the roof,
leaving the attics cold, the windows streaming.


10  King Lear

It does not keep you safe; it does not
give you the words you need, it does not
tell you how much to pay, how much
they owe you. It will not work, like egg-yolks,
to cool the numb heat of lost eyes and treacheries.
It does not surrender to the reasonable
case for not risking everything to keep
secrets and rivals, the white line in the tickling
membrane of freedom. It will not keep you dry: rain,
like crying, sinks down to the bone.
It will not stop: not when you want it to,
not when you want to settle with the mirror
of your shame. Never. It will not. Never.

These sonnets don't come from the perspective of critic or audience; as we read the poems we enter the plays themselves, not so much the plots of the plays as their different worlds. Love is the reality and the question in them all. It's not really about Shakespeare but about us.

Elsewhere there are two superb marriage poems ("A Midsummer Night's Dream" and, dreadfully, "Macbeth"). "Measure for Measure" engages brilliantly with the play's deep debate about venality, veniality and  forgiveness. The others, none of them less than provoking, are "Twelfth Night", "Much Ado About Nothing", "Antony and Cleopatra", "A Winter's Tale" and "Othello".

It helps to know the plays quite well. I thought I knew Romeo and Juliet, but I'm not aware of anything in it quite like the image of drunkenly stumbling round on a church roof with billows of silk. Though the dangerous high jinks of teenagers is of course germane. Perhaps it's a deep image, an apprehension of something hidden immanent in Romeo and Juliet, not only in the night scenes of party revellers, or of visits to the tomb of the Capulets, but in (after searching the Folger digital Shakespeare*) such phrases as "star-crossed lovers", "Begot of nothing but vain fantasy" (Queen Mab), "fleckled darkness like a drunkard reels", "thy canopy is dust and stones", "shake the yoke of inauspicious stars", Tybalt's "bloody sheet",  and probably a lot more.

Williams may have been inspired by T.S. Eliot's Coriolan and Marina. The form and the manner of proceeding often remind me of  R.S. Thomas's sonnets, and sometimes of Geoffrey Hill, but these poems are so achieved that influences don't really matter. They're intent, searching, and passionate.


Rowan Williams on poetry and frontiers (beginning with the South Bank) -- a talk from 2009:

[On Shakespeare's Sonnet 23:] "But here Shakespeare is talking about one of those emotional frontier moments: stumbling, stammering in the context of human love that overwhelms, not knowing what to say. And in his Sonnets he explores again and again the way in which love and death interweave. Love is one of those things which, if you find the words and imagination for it, somehow carries you round or through or over a fear of death. Poetry is one of those things that you invoke to silence some of the terrors that human experience gives you..."

Almond (Prunus dulcis), Swindon, March 19th 2019.

[* In the new paperless era, I've started to use these Folger texts of Shakespeare's plays quite a lot, because of their attractive appearance and because they have line numbering. The texts do have some shortcomings, though. The line numbering must have been applied in an automated way, since e.g. lines of verse that are too long to fit on one line of print are numbered twice. I was surprised to see that it adopts the Q2/F1 reading "Then I deny you, stars!" -- Most editions have followed Pope's emendation, based on Q1, "Then I defy you, stars!" -- but maybe I'm out of touch with current scholarship.]

Labels: ,

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Cristina Rivera Garza

Another writer -- novelist, poet, academic -- that I've discovered via the anthology women: poetry: migration ed. Jane Joritz-Nakagawa (2017). (Rivera Garza is Mexican but currently lives in the USA.)

She writes both in Spanish and English. Her novels in Spanish are widely read and admired, e.g. Nadie me verá llorar (1999), La cresta de Ilión (2002) and most recently El mal de la taiga (2012), the latter recently translated into English as The Taiga Syndrome.

Here's some extracts from her contribution to the anthology, "About to something". I hope they give a hint of its unfrivolity and poetic intelligence -- but isn't this just another way of saying intelligence? --  though they can't give much idea of the dense weave of anaphora/cataphora within this imaginative landscape.


The undergrowth is a terrified accumulation of carnivorous plants and thorns and violent sky-blue humidity, and foliage.


At the center of everything lies, naturally, murder.

Death is never a vacillation.


Does the child know that he is about to faint under the sharp edge of a furious sword?

I do not know what the girl knows.
It is an exaggeration to describe a front yard as an "undergrowth".
But, I insist, when you look back and are able to see their faces, still burning, and their thin bodies spread with geometric rigor on the green, humid ground, do you feel something?

When pronouncing the words "undergrowth" and "spell", the speaker may have the impression he is talking about the same thing.

Feeling is a very large green.

In the Garden Court, right in front of the six sleeping women, heads on bent arms, all of them languid on wooden tables, peaceful, I thought: "Perhaps we will never know if we were palpated by the kind of life we never managed to know."


The one who continues praying through the body, under the sheltering vault, within the ceasing. Look for genuflection, reverence, adoration. Look out for fear. Feel it. Feel the terror. Something ought to be understood. Look at the empty hands, for example. Feel the weight of the body not there. Scratching is a way of growling with fingers. To shiver. To wound. A wall is also a thing made out of night dew.

["About to something" is in two parts. The last of these extracts comes from the second part, in memoriam Marisela Escobedo Ortíz, a human rights activist killed in Chihuahua in 2010 while protesting the murder of her daughter.]


There's masses of online writing by and about Rivera Garza. From so much, I'll just quote part of the long poem "Tercer mundo" ("Third World"), translated by Jen Hofer:

In the kitchen which was everywhere the men came to know the bite of garlic intimately
and those who were going to be women wore glass armor instead of flowered aprons.

They could be recognized by the agility of their thighs and the proficiency of their hands as they snatched.

They were the diurnal animals that took the parks by storm
     solid like a flagpole ringed with light
the length of it appeased by wide red-black flags.
They, the ones with sad armpits and mouths bursting with the greatest hunger
     flung themselves upon the roundness of the world with arms and legs made of net.
They could be recognized because it was difficult to know if they were just going or if they were already returning aghast.
They were the ones who sang hymns out of tune and walked upstream in parades
     the contingent of dark individuals.

They could be recognized by their way of being absolutely, roundly, cinematically wrong.

But above all they could be recognized by the excess in their eyes
     obsidian stones inlaid in firm emaciated crania
tremendously stunned drops
kites flying spiral.


A lucid and fascinating interview with Andy Fitch (Dec. 2018):

Cristina Rivera Garza's current blog:
Previous blog:
Articles in Literal magazine:
She's also on Twitter: .

[Image source: .]


Wednesday, March 20, 2019

minor Balzac

One of Picasso's thirteen etchings for a 1931 edition of Le Chef-d'œuvre inconnu

[Image source: .]

One of our favourite cafés in Bath has some shelves of old books upstairs, including a dozen volumes of the Caxton Edition of Balzac in English (1897 - ).  That block of dull peridot spines probably depresses some customers, but I was thrilled. Eventually my light-fingered ways got the better of me and, just as the café was about to close, I abstracted one of the books at random (yes, I shall be returning it).

The Caxton Balzac contained 53 volumes altogether; the translators are not named and info on the internet is distinctly lacking / unreliable. The book I snatched turned out to be The Unknown Masterpiece. It contains the title story and four others, all from the early 1830s. Balzac subsequently incorporated them into the "Études Philosophiques" section of the Comédie Humaine.

I suppose they can be considered minor pieces. Balzac was quite generous when it came to giving early ephemeral pieces a place in his grand conception. None of these stories evince the kind of intense commitment to a single artistic idea that we find in e.g. Eugénie Grandet.  Balzac's forensic, exhaustive focus on character and setting are distinctly absent here.  By comparison there's an improvised, slapdash quality. Different parts of the same story have different types of interest. In "The Maranas", for example, the account of the Diards' attempts to get on in Parisian society take us to a much more serious place than the melodramas of the story's prelude and denouement. In "The Red Inn" it's difficult to feel absorbed in the narrator's moral dilemma at the end: this is a story that has brushed tantalizingly on many themes of greater interest, but keeps swerving away from them. Does Balzac know or care what he's doing? On the basis of his wilier masterpieces you'd want to say yes. In "Master Cornelius" the ample narrative of the opening is, as it were, tossed away in the maelstrom of the later pages; the lovers' terrors now seem insignificant fripperies; but what follows absorbs us in a completely different way. Is this radical change in our point of view to be regarded as opportunism, indifference, or a supremely confident gearshift?

"Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu" / "The Unknown Masterpiece" (1832)

Balzac is relatively unusual as a novelist for having significant influence on the fine arts. He knew quite a lot about painting, as is apparent from Le Cousin Pons as well as this story, which obsessed Cézanne and Picasso -- not to mention Zola. "Frenhofer, c'est moi!" Cézanne asserted. Ironically, he certainly was the main model for Zola's Claude Lantier in L'Oeuvre. When Cézanne discovered this, he immediately, and finally, ended their long-standing friendship.

 Set in 1612-13, it recounts the case of a brilliant amateur artist and critic, Frenhofer (a fictional character), now an old man, whose earlier paintings were remarkable and who has now been working for ten years on his masterpiece, a painting of a beautiful courtesan. No-one has ever seen the picture. Frenhofer, unable to satisfy himself that his work is complete and wanting to make some final adjustments, requires a surpassingly beautiful model. His artist friends Porbus (= Frans Pourbus the younger, 1569 - 1622) and a young Nicolas Poussin (1594 - 1665) offer to let Poussin's mistress Gillette model for him, in exchange for a glimpse of the mysterious painting. They are horrified to discover that it's a chaotic daub in which no subject is discernible (except in one corner, where a tell-tale foot shows that the painting did at one time depict a woman). Frenhofer has imagined that he has achieved unmatched realization, until he perceives their scepticism and instantaneously recognizes his own delusion. "The next day, Porbus, feeling anxious concerning Frenhofer, called once more at his house, and learned that he had died during the night after burning his pictures."

Balzac's story is quite historically informed. Poussin really was in Paris learning his craft from 1612. He subsequently became a painter notable for emphasis on line. In the story, Frenhofer insists that there is no line in nature, but Porbus defends its use in art. Evidently we are to understand that Poussin takes on board Porbus' moderate advice, and rejects Frenhofer's more extreme ideas.

Margherita Gonzaga, portrait by Frans Pourbus the younger

[Image source: .]

The fascination of the story is its absence of interpretation. True, Frenhofer is mad, but aren't all serious artists a bit mad? Is the story a cautionary tale about the immoderate pursuit of art-theory and perfectionism (Porbus notes that Frenhofer's wealth means he has no restraints)? Or is Frenhofer a demonic inspiration, a reproof to unserious art and a true visionary of art's possibilities? Or maybe both: a fable of genius as simultaneously life-giving and deadly, a quest that ends in both triumph and failure.

Then again, you can read it as a meditation on the mystery of finishing a painting. Lesser mortals know how easy it is to ruin a picture by incautiously trying to improve it. But Frenhofer isn't a lesser mortal, his technique is unparalleled and his perfectionism without limits, so why would he ever regard his painting as finished? Or perhaps it considers the temptations of a private art that brings perfect satisfaction to the artist but cannot bear the public gaze? (It's a tragic irony, maybe, that Frenhofer, such a pitiless critic of other artists, is himself destroyed by a few words?)

Are Gillette's the truest insights of all, because she cares least about art and most about people? Her sad acceptance that Poussin loves his art more than he loves her, and her horror when he insensitively treats as failed art something that has become to its creator a fetish, a living being, his soul companion... (The story evidently casts a glance at the myth of Pygmalion.)

St Denis the Areopagite, Poussin's earliest dated painting (1620-1621)

[Image source: .]

Online text of The Unknown Masterpiece -- probably Katharine Prescott Wormeley's translation, but this isn't stated.

"Les Marana" / "The Maranas" (1832)

The story begins with the French capture of Tarragona in 1811 and two friends among the invading army, the Italian libertine Montefiore and the low-born, corrupt, Provençal quartermaster Diard. The former pursues the beautiful and closeted girl Juana, he even thinks of marrying her, until he learns that she's the daughter of a famous Venice courtesan in the immemorial line of the Maranas. The courtesan ("La Marana") had hoped to preserve this beloved daughter from following the family profession, and has had her adopted by an upright Spanish couple, but the experienced Montefiore soon recognizes the girl's inherited, though unconscious and buried, passions. But in mid-seduction Juana's mother unexpectedly arrives and chaos ensues, resulting in Montefiore fleeing for his life and Juana promising her mother to marry a perfectly willing Diard, who has just arrived on the scene in response to Montefiore's cries for help (La Marana sees this as the only way to avoid her daughter's disgrace).

Juana dislikes her husband but honours her promise and is quiescently, unhappily married. Diard expels Montefiore from the regiment and, much in love with his new wife, is at first ambitious in his plans to make headway in society (he has made plenty of money), but he lacks strength of character and finesse. The couple establish themselves in Paris: the Parisians admire Juana but, scenting the attitude of his military colleagues, are profoundly contemptuous of Diard. Juana, though unsophisticated in her ideas of society, sees all this.

"These details convey but a feeble idea of the thousand and one tortures of which Juana was the victim; they came one by one; each social unit contributed its pin-prick, and who can conceive the excruciating agony of a heart that prefers dagger-thrusts in that constant conflict in which Diard received insults without feeling them and Juana felt them without receiving them?"

Juana encourages her husband to take comfort in domestic life but he's unsettled and begins to find fault with his virtuous wife. In the end he quarrels with her over their children; he realizes that she has been concealing her preference for the eldest, doubtless not his own son but Montefiore's.  Estranged from his wife, Diard falls into dissipation, takes up gambling for high stakes and moves on to dodgy business transactions. (Ironically, society now begins to respect him.)  Juana fears some disaster; Diard fears his wife. Finally his luck and money run out. He moves the family to Bordeaux. He takes up sharpery at the spa resorts of the Pyrenees, meets Montefiore and loses to him. He invites Montefiore back to  Bordeaux on the pretext of paying his debt; then murders him. He returns to his wife, pursued by the gendarmes. Seeing that he cannot escape, she urges him to shoot himself to save his sons' honour. When he hesitates, she shoots him in the head.  Though she admits what she's done, the authorities give suicide as the cause of death and allow her to leave for Spain with her children.  On the point of departure, she's seen by her dying mother: "Die in peace, mother, I have suffered for you all!" (that is, she has expiated the sins of the Maranas).

Online text of Juana (the original title of The Maranas), translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley.

[In Ewa Maczka's interesting essay "La belle Juive", she claims that Balzac here appropriates the term "marranes", which meant Jews who, though converted to Christianity, clandestinely practiced Judaism. The essay shows that Balzac (influenced by Scott's Rebecca in Ivanhoe), portrays Jewesses as "oriental". And he often associates courtesans and Jews, framing an ambivalent image of the exotically beautiful but socially unassimilable: neither clearly anti-Semitic nor clearly philo-Semitic, but with the potential to go either way.]

"Un drame au bord de la mer"  /  "A Seashore Drama"  (1834)

Two lovers, holidaying at Le Croisic, encounter a tragic, silent solitary. Later they are told his story: an austere fisherman who finally killed his own worthless son.

"...they were mad over him. If their little Jacques had dirted in the saucepan, saving your presence, they would have said it was sugar. ... And when another said: 'Pierre Cambremer, do you know that your son has put out the little Pougaud girl's eye?' he replied: 'He will be fond of the girls!' -- He thought that all he did was right. And so my little rascal, at ten years of age, cudgelled everybody, and amused himself by cutting off chickens' heads; he would cut them open, too, -- in short, he rolled in blood like a polecat. -- 'He will be a famous soldier,' said Cambremer, 'he has a taste for blood.' ..."

One of the things Jacques goes on to do is rob his mother's savings; the same motif occurs in George Eliot's "Brother Jacob". The contrast between the two stories, not in condemnation of the deed, but in tone and treatment, is remarkable.

Online text of A Drama on the Seashore, translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley

"L'Auberge rouge" / "The Red Inn"  (1831)

Like the previous, a boxed story with multiple frames. At its heart is an account of the young surgeon Pascal Magnan, who, staying at a Rhineland inn in 1799, during the war with Austria, is horribly tempted to commit a murder, but doesn't. When he wakes, the murder has taken place. Pascal is arrested and executed. His defence is feeble both because he feels morally guilty and because he can't countenance the obvious conclusion that his friend and fellow-surgeon must have carried out the murder.  In the outer frame, the narrator identifies the murderer (now twenty years older) as present among the audience for the story. He also learns that this stranger is father to the girl he loves and wishes to marry. Now he knows that her wealth results from an atrocious crime. What to do?

Online text of The Red Inn, translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley.

"Maître Cornélius" / "Master Cornelius"  (1831)

A tale of Louis XI; and Balzac makes due reference to Scott's Quentin Durward. For the first forty pages (concerning the perilous assignations of two lovers) there's indeed something of Scott's solidly grounded costume drama, but from then on the story becomes altogether more flighty. The situation at the end is ingenious: Master Cornelius, silversmith, merchant, miser and crony of king Louis, has suffered numerous robberies over the years (and hanged quite a number of his assistants as a result). The king-turned-detective discovers that his friend sleepwalks and has been unconsciously robbing himself. The waking Cornelius doesn't know where the sleeping Cornelius secretes the booty. The only way he could find out would be to allow someone else to watch him, but that's out of the question, because they'd be sure to make off with the booty themselves. And accordingly, Cornelius will never know where his treasures are. Louis, sensing Cornelius' distrust, takes his leave; the friendship between the two old men is broken.  Cornelius is so terrified of being secretly observed while asleep that he tries to stay awake night after night, and eventually, tortured by sleep deprivation, cuts his own throat.

Online text of Maitre Cornelius, translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley.

[Eugène Scribe borrowed the somnambulism part of the plot for his libretto to Halévy's 1839 opera Le shérif  (Cornelius is transformed into Sir James Turner, High Sheriff of London).]

[Both Louis and Cornelius reappear in "The Merry Jests of King Louis the Eleventh", one of Les Cent Contes drolatiques. (As it turned out, Balzac only managed thirty.) Here's an English translation: . ]

Labels: , ,

Friday, March 15, 2019

Kaplinski, impoverished nature, drumlins....

Once again I've brushed against Evening Brings Everything Back, translations of Estonian poet Jaan Kaplinski by the author and Fiona Sampson (Bloodaxe, 2004).   [Previous post here.]

It's a book full of ideas, especially the prose piece Ice and Heather. Since I first read it the idea that's lingered most in my mind (I forgot to record Kaplinski's words) is about how the northern flora is extremely impoverished, almost a desert flora, and this is how humans like it. It's a matter of clean aesthetics, but it's also a matter of being able to grasp what's going on. No accident that Linnaeus was a Swede, nor the ground-breaking British tradition of systematic botany: Gerard, Ray, Darwin etc. Contrast the nature of the tropics, so overwhelming the number of species, and the incredible difficulties of identifying e.g. rain-forest trees, which flower at no predictable season (hundreds of feet above the botanists' head) and perhaps miles from the nearest individual of the same species. A thousand square miles of nothing but pine, spruce, birch and aspen: that's much more reassuring. Most of nature is unseen by most of us. We place exaggerated value on the few orders that we can easily see: birds, butterflies, colourful flowers, big animals, trees. It's a humanly delimited vision. Increasingly, if incompetently (for we often destroy the things we love), we shape our surroundings in line with those preferences.

Anyway, here's another extract about the limits of an everyday human perspective.


In Alta, on a rocky hilltop, I saw clearly the tracks of a glacier. Probably the ice had pushed along a sharp piece of stone that had left these scratches. Similar ice-drawn lines can be found on limestone in some places in my country, Estonia. Their direction makes it possible to say which way the glaciers were moving here. That can also be guessed from the stones and boulders themselves. If we know where the type of mineral they consist of is to be found, we know from where the glacier broke them off and carried them here. These boulders are pieces, fragments of the ruins of Fennoscandia, the Fennoscandia of the Tertiary period, of sequoias and magnolias.

When I flew from Britain to Canada for the first time,  the Atlantic was covered by thick clouds, and to my great disappointment I couldn't see the ocean. I napped, then woke up and put on headphones where a Brandenburg Concerto by Bach was just playing. When I took a look down again, there were no more clouds to be seen, and the plane was just approaching the Labrador coast. Below us stretched a snowy landscape with frozen lakes, rivers, hills and forests. No trace of human habitation: no roads, now towns, no power lines. Neither the aborigine villages nor hunters' huts could be seen from the height of ten kilometres: I believe there were some below. On this virgin winter landscape I could distinguish -- sometimes clearly, sometimes vaguely -- lines running from Northwest to Southeast (I think this was the direction). These were furrows ploughed by the glacier, the valleys partly covered with lakes, the ridges with forest and bush. From the earth one can hardly discern the regularity of these drumlins and dales, but it becomes clear from a bird's eye view, from high above the ground.

Glacier direction shown by drumlins

[Image source:]


Powered by Blogger