Sunday, June 20, 2021

The Swedish calendar

I got up for a wee, and there was already -- could it be? -- Yes, the just the faintest light outside, a blue above the roofs of the estate. Back in my room, I looked at the phone: coming up to 0410.

  Sommarsolståndet

Well, just about. It is June 20 today. 

I had been glancing through my Swedish "weather calendar". 

Sommarståndsregn är vanligen långvariga.

Rain on midsummer day is usually long-lasting.

But if there's sunshine today it means Christmas Day will be very cold (clear skies). That's because they are dagbröder ("brother days") and have the same weather as each other.  

Som väderlek är på midsommardag, blir den under den följande del av sommaren.

Whatever the weather does on midsummer's day, it will be like that for the rest of the summer.

"Sommarstånd" is short for "sommarsolstånd", which means (and is cognate with) "summer solstice": summer sun stand. The day the sun comes to a standstill. Now it has reached its frontier of early light. It stands there reflecting, perhaps, on what it sees. And then, very slowly, it starts to go back. 

I thought of how, to get more of the magical summer light than this, I needed to go to the far north, without delay. Rise up and leave now! I sipped my glass of water, and fell back asleep.

*



*

The iron nights (järnnätter) are certain nights in late spring or late summer that were supposed to be particularly liable to frost, and hence a threat to crops. 

My weather calendar (Väderkalendar) specifies the 1-2 June (with the abbreviation "AC", impenetrable to me), the 6-9 June in Jämtland, the 8-10 June in Lappland, the 14-18 June in Västergötland. 

And then 9-12 August (Västmanland). 11 August (Hälsingland). 11-13 August (Jämtland) -- but if there's no frost on those nights, then one can be confident there'll be none until the 24th. More pessimistically, 17-28 August (Västergötland)

Wikipedia says the name for these proverbially risky nights may have arisen originally from a mistranslation of German Eismän (ice men) as Eisenmän (iron men). [The men in question being saints of specific days.]

*

The originally German 1508 book called Bondepraktikan in its Swedish version (1662) was, along with the bible, catechism and psalms, the basic reading matter of ordinary Swedish people until the end of the 19th century. It went through about 50 editions, the lore unaffected, I think, by the eleven-day shift in 1753 when switching from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian one. 

As a result of that book, further accreted with local lore, nearly every day in Sweden was a St Swithins day in someone's eyes, its weather a sign or having some proverbial application. 

*

Some of this lore was practical. No doubt it's sensible for Norrbotten coastlanders to be cautious about planting their potatoes before the end of the "iron nights" (8 June in their reckoning). 

But what was the point in remarking, e.g. on 20 June, "Sunshine today means a cold Christmas"? There must have been a social function, perhaps a sense of security or community-forming arising from a shared and sharable hoard of not-really-facts. 

*

It was via Germany, too, that the name's day tradition came to Nordic lands. It's still usual to include the names of the day in modern Swedish calendars, though I don't know how many modern Swedes make anything of it. In my own family, my mother Eva's name's day happened to fall on Christmas Eve and this was an annual talking point. Because it was such a special day for other reasons, we were more apt to remember and sometimes there was a child's drawing or an extra hug "because it's your name's day". But this was exceptional. We children might have looked up when our own name's days fell, out of curiosity, but that was as far as it went. My name's day is September 29th (the name's day being usually the same as the eponymous saint's day, when there is one). But sixty-two September 29ths have come and gone without me once thinking "Oh, it's my name's day today!" 

June 3: If it rains today it will rain at harvest-time.

Thunder in June means a rainy summer but a rich harvest. 

July 26: If it rains today there will be a good hop harvest. 

Aftonrodnad -- klar natt, morgonrodnad -- våt hatt. (Evening red, clear night. Morning red, wet hat. )

When the black grouse play in the autumn it's seven weeks to the first snow. 


Labels:

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Wole Soyinka: The Interpreters (1965)

 

'Metal on concrete jars my drink lobes'. This was Sagoe, grumbling as he stuck fingers in his ears against the mad screech of iron tables. Then his neck was nearly snapped as Dehinwa leapt up and Sagoe's head dangled in the void where her lap had been. Bandele's arms never ceased to surprise. At half-span they embraced table and chairs, pushed them deep into the main wall as dancers dodged long chameleon tongues of the cloudburst and the wind leapt at them, visibly malevolent. In a moment only the band was left.

The 'plop' continued some time before its meaning became clear to Egbo and he looked up at the leaking roof in disgust, then threw his beer into the rain muttering.

'I don't need his pity. Someone tell God not to weep in my beer.'

*

That's the arresting, some would say dismaying, opening of the novel the thirty-year-old Wole Soyinka published in 1965, The Interpreters. It did not offer to be a novel that slipped down easily. 

The scene is a nightclub (the Cambana) in Lagos. The group of young men are getting more drunk, Sagoe especially. (His girlfriend Dehinwa isn't drinking.)  They are sitting outside the main framework of the building in one of the partitioned cubicles for private groups, but the fierce rain has just started, there's a rush to move tables and chairs under the awning. Within the cubicle Bandele with his long arms is shunting their table and all the chairs at once, Dehinwa has had to leap up leaving the prone Sagoe unsupported. When they sit down again, Egbo's beer turns out to be right under a drip from the roof. 

The action can be extricated from the dense prose, but there's more here than the action. Egbo is already matching himself against the gods, glinting with an Ogun manner. Sagoe is already complaining in his self-centred yet fanciful and somehow not quite charmless way. 

The novel spends more time on these two characters than any of the others, yet strangely they have little to do with each other's lives, they never come into real conflict nor into real harmony. They have been friends since childhood, and in Chapter 5 we catch a glimpse of them back in Sunday School, exchanging notes about the weekly purgatives being foisted on them by Sagoe's mother. (Sagoe's troubled stomach being already a shaping concern of his young life.). 

But now, still part of the same circle of friends, they discreetly keep their distance. At one point Egbo goes into a rant to Kola and Bandele about how the past should be dead and the dead should be past: 

". . .They owe the living a duty to be forgotten quickly, usefully. Believe me, the dead should have no faces."

"You and Sagoe should get together," Kola said.

"He is a politician." 

"Meaning? You tell me what new African doesn't spew politics." 

"You see? You don't even know what I am talking about. . . ."

 (from The Interpreters, Chapter 9 (p. 120))

The novel isn't really focussed on interrelationships. Instead its characteristic image is already here on the opening page. A dazzle of physical action and activity around them, and these bright upwardly mobile returnees to a newly post-colonial Nigeria -- drunk, confused by their surroundings and confused by their personal inner conflicts. A little directionless, not knowing quite what to make of it all or what to do with their lives. 

And the "visibly malevolent" wind is an early hint at the underlying presence of the amphibious lagoon country and the Yoruba pantheon of gods who play actively yet indecipherably across the novel's experience of modern SW Nigeria. Felt as presence rather than outright protagonists. 

Here's another moment when Egbo thinks about Sagoe and tries a summation, the language buckling:

Under the heavy brood of grey, Egbo began to wonder how high the water had risen in the church of Lazarus. He remembered now that it was built on a slight rise of land, but the floods seemed ambitious enough for the main church, even for the altar several steps above the nave. A rotted half of a canoe shifting silt and slopping water reminded him of the telephone operator's voice in Sagoe's office which drove him mad -- and he was wondering what he had known, what he had seen, for he knew humanity welled in his throat like bilge-water in a black, decayed dug-out. Often he had watched Sagoe where he could sniff and unsniff emotions like a stranger . . . Sagoe, Sagoe . . . but then, weren't they all caught in a common centrifuge through the hurt of gilded abstractions, full of flies, reaching for a long time-whisk to brush away thought-smarts embedded in each sting . . .

(from Chapter 15 (p. 221).)


The Interpreters isn't always as stretchingly poetic as this, but even when it isn't you have to read carefully, because it's very swift. 


They left the club towards morning. Egbo started them up, following out the lone dancer when the singers left, and the spell shattered about her. 

'You have a rendezvous in space?' Sagoe asked. (1)

'Get lost.' (2)

'In space, certainly, what do you say, my little Secretary?' (3)

'Egbo at least is sensible. Time we all went home.' (4)

Bandele rose, 'When do you set off for Ibadan?' Sagoe asked him.

'Soon as I get up. I'm setting off before these two.' (5)

'I doubt that. Sheikh wants to get back early. But if you are ready before me, he can ride back with you.' (6)

'Anyway, if I don't see you before you go, just leave the houseboy in charge.' (7)

'You won't be back. Good-night, Dehinwa. Don't let him drive.' (8)

 

(beginning of Chapter 2 (pp. 31-32)). 


1. Sagoe to Egbo. Referring back to his comparison of the dancer's buttocks to satellites in space (Ch. 1 (p. 25)). So a suggestion of a rendezvous between the buttocks.

2. Egbo's response to Sagoe's crudity. (And he means it literally, too -- Egbo on the hunt needs to leave his friends behind.)

3. Sagoe (perhaps a bit put out by Egbo's force) makes a weak pun on the expression "lost in space". (But he surely isn't thinking of the US TV series, whose first episodes aired in 1965.) He redirects the sexual suggestion to his girlfriend Dehinwa (who works as a secretary). Dehinwa has not allowed Sagoe to have sex with her. 

4. Dehinwa's response. As often, she's the sensible one. 

5. Bandele replying to Sagoe. Bandele is a professor at the university of Ibadan. "These two" are Kola and Sekoni. Kola teaches too (art). Kola has had their troubled friend Sekoni come to live with him. Sekoni sculpts, Kola paints. Among the group of friends, these are the three who live in Ibadan (about 80 miles from Lagos). Sagoe has invited the Ibadan guys to stay at his flat, hoping himself to spend the night with Dehinwa. Sagoe, Dehinwa, Egbo and Lasunwon live in Lagos, as is gradually conveyed in the squabble about sleeping arrangements that follows soon after. (Strikingly, the novel never goes any nearer to Egbo's lodgings, nor to his work in Lagos. The Egbo of the novel is always restlessly out and about.) 

6. Kola speaking, hearing himself referred to. "Sheikh" is a nickname for Sekoni, who is of Islamic background (though he married a Christian). 

7. Sagoe speaking. A hint that he has no intention of sleeping at his own flat. Dehinwa picks up the implication, and takes him to task about it on the next page. 

8. This could be either Bandele or Kola speaking. Sounds more like Kola to me, but it's arguable. 


Here's a minimal cribsheet to this easy-to-lose-your-way novel, with emphasis on the narrative events that move forward from Chapter 1 through to Chapter 18. 


Part One

Chapter 1. Lagos: The nightclub. Flashback 1: boat trip to near Egbo's grandfather's village; Egbo could be its new ruler; Egbo's indecision. Back to the nightclub scene: Kola's drawings, the lone dancer. Flashback 2: Sekoni's power station project, aborted by a corrupt inspector.

Chapter 2. Lagos. Leaving the club (Egbo heading off in pursuit of the lone dancer). Dehinwa reluctantly taking the drunk Sagoe to her own home.  Late-night scene with Dehinwa's reproving mother and aunt. 

Chapter 3. Ibadan. Presentation party at Ibadan (university). Monica Faseyi and her social-climbing husband. Kola's encounter with Monica Faseyi and Usaye. 

Chapter 4. Flashback 3 to a younger Egbo. His sexual initiation by Simi. 

Chapter 5. Lagos. A hung-over Sagoe in Dehinwa's room. Flashback 4 to Sagoe applying for a job at the "Independent Viewpoint" newspaper. Derinola, Mathias, Sagoe's Voidante philosophy. Flashback 5 to Sagoe and Egbo (and Dehinwa), when children, at their Sunday School. Flashback 4 continued: Sagoe meets Bandele and Kola for the first time since his return from the USA. Winsala and Derinola: the job offer.

Chapter 6. Flashback 4 continued: Sagoe fails to get his report on Sekoni's power station published. Voidancy continued. Flashback 6, Sekoni and his father's pilgrimage to Old Jerusalem, then forward to Ibadan where Sekoni lives with Kola: his sculpture (The Wrestler), and Kola's squabble with Joe Golder.

Chapter 7. Lagos: Sagoe's bath, walk and taxi and walk (over Carter Bridge) to Ikoyi cemetery. The two funerals.

Chapter 8. Lagos: Sagoe witnesses the flight and capture of "Barabbas" (later named Noah). Meets the albino from the funeral. The albino's intervention to rescue "Barabbas". 

Chapter 9. Ibadan: Egbo at Bandele's. The shrine under the bridge. More memories of first night with Simi (Flashback 3). Egbo and the girl student, the mystery, they make love. 

Chapter 10. Ibadan: Sagoe at Bandele's. The infuriating Peter. The Oguazors' party. (Egbo is there too, as is Kola though he later claims otherwise (Ch. 14).)

Part Two

Chapter 11. Sekoni's death in a road accident. Lagos: At the Cambana nightclub again. The albino (Lazarus), his story of dying and returning to life, his invitation to come to the church. Kola's argument with Lasunwon.

Chapter 12. Near Lagos: Lazarus, the church service, the dedication of Noah (= "Barabbas"). Bandele's reproof to the other "interpreters", their scepticism and exploitation. Kola wishes to paint Noah. Egbo thinking of his potential village kingdom again.

Chapter 13. Ibadan: Sagoe at Bandele's. Avoiding Peter, he meets Joe Golder who invites him back to his eighth-floor apartment. Sagoe changes his mind about staying the night there. Joe's homosexuality. Sagoe's vulgar assault on James Baldwin's Another Country

Chapter 14. Ibadan: Lunch at the Faseyis'. Bandele, Kola, Egbo. Mrs Faseyi. Kola's sense of betrayal. Joe Golder's modelling for Kola. 

Chapter 15. Kola's thoughts about Egbo. Flashback 7, a fight at the Mayomi club (Egbo and the thug, trussed by Bandele). Back to the present, near Lagos: Kola and Egbo lost in the rain at the lagoon, trying to re-locate the church of Lazarus. The fire. Noah panicky and trapped (we later learn that they rescue him and take him back to Ibadan). 

Chapter 16. Ibadan: Kola's almost-finished painting of the Yoruba pantheon. Egbo and Simi, Kola and Monica (they are now together). Lazarus sitting for the painting. The absent Noah. Joe Golder. 

Chapter 17. Ibadan: Egbo torn between Simi and the stranger girl. Bandele arriving at two in the morning; Joe Golder in the back seat. Noah is dead, fallen from the balcony when Joe makes advances. They go to tell Kola. Egbo's revulsion at Joe. Bandele's cover-up story to Lazarus.

Chapter 18. Ibadan: Sekoni's exhibition, with music by Joe Golder. Bandele gives Egbo the pregnant student's message. Egbo spits at Dr Lumoye. Bandele says (to the Lumoye/Oguazor group): "I hope you all live to bury your daughters".


Carter Bridge, Lagos in 1963


[Image source: https://steemit.com/history/@i0x/lagos-back-in-1963-37a0cfae6d772 .]


Page from Wole Soyinka's typescript of the poem "Idanre" (1965)

[Image source: https://www.bl.uk/west-africa/articles/the-ransome-kuti-dynasty . This annotated typescript is in the British Library. Apparently Kola's indefatigable doodling, in The Interpreters, was a habit shared with its author.]


CD cover of the Fela Ransome Kuti compilation Lagos Baby 1963-1969 mostly with his "highlife jazz" band Koola Lobitos

Fela Ransome Kuti (1938 - 1997) was Wole Soyinka's cousin. The music in the opening scene of The Interpreters is supplied first by a highlife band and then by an itinerant apala group. In Chapter 10, at the Oguazors' pretentious party,  Kola comes over to talk to Monica Faseyi and "then begin quite crazily to do a slow High Life to the ballet music playing softly from hidden speakers". 

*

Wole Soyinka is better known as a playwright and poet than as a novelist. But The Interpreters has always been guardedly attended to. Its recurrently experimental idiom, its mixture of blur and overload, sparked praise from some and unease in others about whether this was the way a truly African novel should go about things. Wasn't this modernism, and wasn't modernism intrinsically American/European? Some of that debate is captured in this piece by Nasrullah Mambrol:

https://literariness.org/2019/04/12/analysis-of-wole-soyinkas-novels/

*





Soyinka himself has always been an outspoken and independent voice. For example, he did not fully buy in to the pan-African ethos embodied in the esteemed African Writers Series (AWS), calling it "The Orange Ghetto". He saw the dangers of a self-limiting definition. Nevertheless, his own novels sold far more copies once they were republished in the AWS.

(See this fascinating 2018 piece on the AWS by Josh MacPhee in Lapham's Quarterly:

https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/roundtable/judged-its-covers .)

The book I picked up last year was of course an AWS one. It had notes by Eldred Jones as well as an indispensable glossary. (But the notes seem to refer to an Introduction that isn't present in this edition.)


*

As I write (June 2021), Wole Soyinka's third novel is about to be published, a mere 56 years after The Interpreters. 


Labels: ,

Monday, June 14, 2021

When

 

Ranunculus platanifolius


This photo records one of the high points in my forty years of looking at flowers. Ranunculus platanifolius (Sw: Vitsippsranunkel) is an unusual plant of meadows in the more southerly fells of Sweden. (It also occurs in the Alps.) It doesn't really have an English name but Wikipedia calls it "Large White Buttercup". 

It wasn't an epiphanic moment at the time. I took a hasty snap of the unknown plant as I stood near a waterfall with my mum and dad, who were having an argument about our plans for the day. I took no part in the argument, but I was probably the cause of it. 

Nearly every summer I used to take a week off work and dash off to the north of Sweden to spend a few days with my mum and dad at their summer cottage in eastern Jämtland. During this precious week I was always keen for us to make a short excursion, especially to the tempting fells in the west. But as the years went by even someone as insensitive as me couldn't fail to understand that accommodating my adventurous dreams was becoming more challenging for them. 

I don't have my notebooks to hand, so I don't know exactly what year this was. I guess it was around 2009. (They gave up the cottage in 2013.) But at any rate, thanks to my note in Björn Ursing's Fältflora, I know where we were. I recorded the location as Hamra -- Anderssjöafallet. So we were in Tänndalen, in the far west of Härjedalen county, close to the Norwegian border. I think we had spent the previous night in a hot hotel room in Funäsdalen. After the argument we drove up to a little torp where we ate waffles and had a lovely walk to a little peak nearby (Ramundberget?). Then we had a long and exhausting car journey back to our cottage. We had hardly got going when we stopped to photograph a reindeer herd in a lush valley, but of course that meant we got home even later. On this journey I finally understood how absurd it was that I wasn't insured to take some of the burden of these long drives off my elderly parents. I was fifty and still behaving like their little boy. 


Anderssjöafallet

But still, for a decade or more these photos have been hanging on a photo mobile that's accompanied me on all my many moves, becoming a kind of shrine. Most of the other photos on the mobile are of loved ones (for instance, my mum and dad on the mountain stroll later the same day). But the photos portray something abstracted from all the mundane details of their specific locations and dates. A time of my life. A joy already seamed with melancholy but whole-hearted, hopeful, fertile. 









Friday, June 11, 2021

Lost on the road

 

Long-headed Poppy (Papaver dubium). Frome, 9 June 2021.


Half-awake. And in the silent darkness
the far-off sound of clanging
wagons on the quarry railway
someone picking them up and dropping them crosswise

or is it the baying of dogs in a foundry,
a dreadnought works, but where? Does it only 
plate hulls at midnight, is it so far away
that it's only now the sound can reach us? 

Or is there, far in the Mendips, an overlooked cave,
its rocky knuckles a board for the hooting of trolls?
Or is this rumbling a throat deep in the earth
accepting the daily tribute of carted dead?




Bud of Long-headed Poppy (Papaver dubium). Frome, 9 June 2021.


Lost on the road. Red daylight's
shafts on the grizzled fields
the blue seeds strewn in
the cereals' unspeaking 

ranks. What insubordination
could you expect? 
the ceaseless churning of oil
in baulked queues, the horizon

merely a mirror-wall, 
more towns more media outlets
more care homes more schooling
more authorized burning and looting



 
Flower of Long-headed Poppy (Papaver dubium). Frome, 9 June 2021.



You can rinse
you can rinse away
the innocent dust and grease
from your innocent skin

you can apply the pleasant products 
sourced from the plastic aisles
but how can you ever rinse
the grey pond within you

of its wet wipes razor blades
its fatted knots its sunken fears
the everyday hates of the DJs or the 
myths passsed on by the mythbusters


Young fruit of Long-headed Poppy (Papaver dubium). Frome, 9 June 2021.




The next day I came to the next town
I witnessed the same crowds of different people
moving around the same cafes and bars
automatic wheat and sugar, everything's OK

The still heavens and the hoarse loquacious crows
the child gangs hoeing through their acres of on-screen data
and on the benches by the river
the same drinkers, the same cursing Cassandra



Leaves and stem of Long-headed Poppy (Papaver dubium). Frome, 9 June 2021.

[Europe and North Africa. More or less throughout British Isles: sometimes considered an archaeophyte but Stace says "probably native". Fairly common in the south of Sweden, also Öland and Gotland. 

The Swedish name is Rågvallmo ("Rye Poppy"). I suppose it means that this poppy is a contaminant of rye crops. I wouldn't know: I've never seen a field of rye. In the British Isles, it's grown only in tiny quantities. Even in the great traditional rye regions running east from Germany, the total rye production has actually reduced in recent times. The reason, I suppose, is people switching their allegiance to wheat: to cakes and pizzas and croissants and biscuits and pies and pasta and all the other foods in which wheat is used as a silent thickener. Wheat's ability to meld with sugar and (especially) to spongily absorb and convey large quantities of fat into the mouth, makes it highly addictive and the perfect choice for an overweight, sedentary lifestyle.]


Labels: ,

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Sinople eye

 

Dame's Violet (Hesperis matronalis). Frome, 6 June 2021.

[A mainland European species grown in gardens for its flowers and fragrance. Often naturalized in the British Isles and in southern Sweden (Sw: Aftonviol, Trädgårdsnattviol).]


I've been reading Sarah Howe's 2015 poetry collection Loop of Jade. And, what seems to be incurred by that, doing a lot of reading round it too. These poems tend to point away from themselves, in many directions.

It's made me spend even longer than usual on Wikipedia, mugging up on e.g. vernier calipers ("Chinoiserie"), Pythagoras ("Pythagoras's Curtain"), Guandong ("Crossing from Guandong"), the Three Gorges Dam ("Yangtze"), junipers ("Night in Arizona"), exogamy and the Polanski movie Chinatown ("(h) the present classification").

Sometimes I ran across the very expression that is cast up in the poem: "neo-noir" for Polanski's film, and Pythagoras's akousmata illuminating the poem's strange word "acousmatic". Well, no surprise, Sarah Howe is an enthusiastic delver into Wikipedia herself. 

*

                                                        . . . I read
how the groom's family by Chinese tradition
should gift to her kinsmen a piglet, milk-fed . . .

when quite satisfied the bride's still intact.
I imagine your mother cranking the spit.
Crackling's coy, brittle russet then succulent fat --
that atavistic aroma make me salivate,

you physically sick. So as pet names go, Shikse's
not a bad fit. (I did play your Circean temptress . . .)
Wikipedia says it comes down from Leviticus,
how your God labelled creatures unclean to ingest . . .

This is most of the sonnet "(d) Sucking pigs"; I'd like to have quoted it all, but it's not online yet.  

I was OK on Circe and her swine because it was a story that drove a number of the Renaissance masques I wrote about recently
But I needed Menachem Kaiser's in-depth article "Is 'shiksa' an insult?", originally published in the L.A. Review of Books:
And I also needed Xu Bing's account of the performance piece that's mentioned towards the end of the poem:

The sonnet meditates on Sarah Howe's own marriage; her Chinese background, her husband's Jewish background. 

The information about the sucking pig is decontextualized; whatever the truth of this old custom (who did it, when), it's treated here more as a fancy than a fact. The poem plays with these gobbets of "information", combining them, allowing them to be symbolic and "speak volumes",  applying them like people trying on outfits. 

And yet the effect isn't playful. Our ethnic/national self-identities are constructed by us of precisely this kind of internalized stuff, sucked gobbets welcomed as prejudicial guides to life in ways they really aren't. 

A lot of the poems in Loop of Jade grow out of a painfully diligent search for connection with an elusive heritage (Sarah grew up in Hong Kong until she was eight; her mother was Chinese but being adopted had no family). 

But in this fretting sonnet there's a disgusted glimmering of recognition about how meaningless and divisive and harmful it all is. An insight that's too reductive, an insight on which no-one can finally rest. But an insight all the same. 

*

No less so is the poem "(l) Others", at least in its final tittering. 

our future children's skeins, carded. 

"Carded" implies a homogenization, a straightening out, of the at-least-four ethnic yarns in the future children's mix. But it's also a new beginning: the poem quotes Darwin, registering the wonderment of genesis or genetics: have been, and are being, evolved. There's a defiant celebration, too, in "They wouldn't escape by the Mischlinge Laws". 

And yet this poem registers a continuing hostility, too. There are always tyrannies around. If it's not our "blood" or our "race" or our "caste", is it the determinism inherent in science's impositions, is it the tribal and public control we seem unable to outgrow? 

*

A poetic so driven by the play of information must run up against questions of truth. Back in 2013 Sarah Howe discussed this in connection with false memories she had imported into a draft poem, "Loop of Jade" (in the published version, some are changed, some half-changed, some unchanged).

In another poem here, "(e) Sirens", she discusses with the same frankness her misinterpretation of Theordore Roethke's line in "Elegy for Jane"her sidelong pickerel smile. She had always thought of "pickerel" as a fish; now she "discovers" it must have meant a wading bird all along. 

As it happens I'm perfectly sure she was right the first time. "Pickerel" as a wading bird is, as far as I can see, a purely Scottish usage that Roethke wouldn't have known or considered for a moment. The enlightened Sarah's desperate attempt to make a meaningful smile out of a dunlin's "stretched beak" is an imaginative chimera (which, not coincidentally, is the topic of the poem that follows). [That Roethke's poem mentions several other birds is neither here nor there -- this observation works just as well as an argument against "pickerel" meaning yet another bird.]

But Sarah's poem has already laughed off its author's pubby "research", confesses it doesn't know whether Roethke's word is fish or fowl. It's not exactly a laughing poem though. A clutch of themes about the elusiveness of truth and meaning run like a central core through the collection. The discourse of the world, its endless glibness and filtering; its information that isn't; the way that, even when we're not being lied to, we still contrive to deceive ourselves. And the temptation to silence that comes from being over-sensitized to the falsity of discourse. Well, what good is silence? 






Greater Stitchwort (Rabelera holostea). Frome, 5 June 2021.

[The above scientific name was proposed in 2019, following some phylogenetic work. Up to then Greater Stitchwort had always been Stellaria holostea. Throughout British Isles. In Sweden it's quite common in the far south, but rare elsewhere (Sw: Buskstjärnblomma).]


It thuds into my chest, this pendent
ring of milky jade --
I wear it strung on an old watch chain --

meant for a baby's bracelet. Into its
smooth circlet
I can -- just -- fit a quincunx of five

fingertips. Cool on my palm it rests --
the sinople eye
on a butterfly's wing. When I was born

she took it across to Wong Tai Sin,
my mother's mother,
to have it blessed. I saw that place --

its joss-stick incensed mist, the fortune-
casting herd,
their fluttering, tree-tied pleas -- only later

as a tourist.


(from "Loop of Jade". You can see a longer extract here.)

This extract comes from towards the end of the poem. The poet's delivery is suddenly afflicted by a striking hesitancy that recalls what it narrated earlier, her mother's hesitations. As if we've finally reached a point loquacity can't touch, where little is reliable. 

Like Roethke's "pickerel", "sinople" is a word with contradictory definitions. It's a colour word but, like "livid", can mean very different colours. The OED examples for "sinople" are about equally split between green and rusty red. Actually, that kind of works here. The loop of jade itself is green, and within its circle the shadowed palm of the hand could be a sort of ferruginous shade. After all, it's the combination that resembles the eye on a butterfly's wing: the demarcating ring, and the contrasting colour that fills it. (E.g. a Peacock butterfly or a Mountain Apollo.)

But if you think "sinople" might also have attracted the poet by its sino- prefix I think you'd be right. (Sinopoly is the name of a couple of Chinese technical companies.) Sound plays quite an important role in these poems, in their awareness of and participation in semantic leakage. Think of sick-shikse-Wikipedia in the lines I quoted earlier. 

Perhaps "quincunx" is another example of this questing looseness. It ought to mean the pattern exemplified by the five on a dice: a central spot and four corner-spots. Try as I may, I don't see that you would shape your fingertips into a quincunx pattern to fit them into a ring. The fingertips are bound to be arranged more like five petals, I reckon. 


Saxifrage, garden cultivar. Frome, 5 June 2021.

[A cultivar of hybrid origin, I imagine. The leaves and tufted habit generally resemble Tufted Saxifrage (Saxifraga cespitosa), but it has more flowers on each stem than the wild plants -- comparable in that respect to Meadow Saxifrage (Saxifraga granulata).] 


Dave Coates, in his useful post  on Loop of Jade, directed me to Sarah Howe's 2013 series of five meditative travel articles titled "To China" on the BestAmericanPoetry website; well worth reading for their own sake, and they are also (I thought) an indispensable companion to the poetry collection that followed. They're all listed here:

https://profile.typepad.com/6p0192ac7fb755970d

Martyn Crucefix on Loop of Jade:
Naomi on Loop of Jade:


Labels: , ,

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Rosy Garlic (Allium roseum)

 

Rosy Garlic (Allium roseum). Frome, 6 June 2021.

In Sainsbury's car-park in Frome. Rosy Garlic (Allium roseum) is a pretty arrival from the Mediterranean, now becoming quite frequent in the SW UK and along the coast of the English Channel. 

Here it's growing next to Beaked Hawk's-beard, another Mediterranean plant, along with Groundsel and Cleavers/Sticky Willy. 


The pine-scented air
Smells so good in the snow
In our toboggan we'll go
Screaming down the mountainside
The touch of your cheeks
When they're rosy and cold
Feels so cozy to hold
Just to take you close
And make you warm and


(Brian Wilson, from "Time To Get Alone")


Within my head there's a synaesthetic tug-of-war whenever I hear the name "Rosy Garlic". I can't seem to detach the word "rosy" from a sweet floral smell, from rain-rinsed cheeks or mountain toboggan runs, and re-combine it with the hot savour of garlic. 

Sometimes I wish that the plant-lovers who directly imported the French "Ail rose", or the Spanish "Ajo rosado" had translated it more literally to "Pink Garlic". 

Rosy Garlic has been cultivated at the monastery of Billom since the fourteenth century. (A small commune in the Auvergne, also the birthplace of Georges Bataille.)

In Spanish it's also known as "Ajo de culebra" (Snake Garlic); also "Ajo perro" (Dog Garlic), "Ajo de brujas" (Witch's Garlic), "Lágrimas de la Virgen" (Tears of the Virgin) . . .

As I ill-temperedly lament not being in Spain, the thought strikes me that the breath of a foreignness I'm blindly yearning is really right here in the supermarket car-park, in this exotic contemporary combination that -- all too fittingly -- garlands the word FUEL. 

Allium roseum was introduced to the British Isles as a garden plant in 1752. It was first recorded in the wild in 1837.

The plants in the photo are Allium roseum var. bulbiferum, which has bulbils as well as flowers: it seems to be the variety that's most commonly seen outside gardens. 

This species has never been recorded in Sweden, unsurprisingly.


Rosy Garlic (Allium roseum). Frome, 5 June 2021.


Labels: , ,

Wednesday, June 02, 2021

De-digitizing

 

That time of year when there's always a vase on the desk

I've felt completely wiped out for the last few weeks, since I caught a simple cold off the boy (Laura's four-year-old grandson). After three coldified days when everything seemed to be progressing satisfactorily, my body then went into a peculiar, feverish, achy, short-breathed and exhausted tailspin. (I have grave suspicions of the Astra-Zeneca jab messing with my immune response, but let's not get into that.)

During this recess I felt an even stronger desire than usual to do nothing. In particular I could hardly bear to switch on the computer, so a lot of things went on hold. 

But this did lead to one liberation. Since there was no possibility of doing any blogging, and since I wasn't reading anything online, I could gladly give myself up to a splurge of old-fashioned reading, with no need to linger or frame my thoughts about what I was reading. 

So no long musings here, just some sample quotes. 

*

1. Eric Ambler, Epitaph for a Spy (1938). An entertainment that's also a book of great beauty and power. It's set almost entirely in a small resort hotel near Toulon (variant on the "grand hotel" genre invented by Vicki Baum), but it snapshots the whole western world on the brink of war. 

He had been looking out of the window.  Now he turned to me.

'It's a funny thing,' he said, 'how a man can go on for years living with something he feels to be the truth without even suspecting that he hasn't examined all the relevant facts. That was roughly what had happened to me. It was as though I had been living in a darkened room confident that I knew the colour of the walls and of the carpet. Then someone turned up the lamp and I saw that the colours were really quite different and that I had even been wrong about the shape of the room. I had always despised communism. I had written articles denouncing it, calling Marx and Engels windy theorists and Lenin a gangster with a streak of genius. Dialectical materialism, I used to say, was so much cheap rubbishy thinking fit only for pimply youths and half-baked intellectuals. I could be very scathing and amusing on the subject. I thought that I was very wise and level-headed. But the odd thing was that I had never read Marx or Engels. I had the so-called "cultural background of the intelligent European", I was soaked in the neo-Platonism of Bonn. I had not perceived that nothing stinks quite so much as dead philosophies. I was a nineteenth-century man. 

'At first I was very cautious. I was afraid that my mind had been upset by what I had been through and that prejudice was clouding my critical faculties. But I persevered. There was a man there, a German social-democrat like myself. We read "Anti-Dühring" together and became so excited about it that we used to talk all through the night. But what I found so extraordinary was the way it killed the bitterness in me. I was beginning to understand my fellow men, to see the shape of history as I had never seen it before. I read passionately, and as I read I knew that I was seeing for the first time the tragedy of man, his folly and his genius, his destiny and the line of march to it. 

'After a while I started working for the party. The principal activity was getting news into Germany, real news. ...'

(from Epitaph for a Spy, Chapter 13)

[Friedrich Engels' Anti-Dühring (1878): https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/index.htm . Influential in Europe as a relatively concise and popular treatment of Marxism by one of its founders.] 

*

2. Beaumarchais' The Barber of Seville (1775) and The Marriage of Figaro (1784). Brilliant and historically important plays that are inevitably overshadowed by the operas they gave rise to so quickly. From The Marriage, in which the Count's libertine habits have re-awoken . . .

THE COUNT: You are excited, Suzie! Talking to yourself and your little heart going pit-a-pat . . . very understandable of course on such a day . . .

SUZANNE [in concern]: What do you want of me, My Lord? Suppose anyone found you here with me . . .

THE COUNT: I should be very sorry indeed if they did. But you know what an interest I take in you. Bazile must have let you know of my love for you. I have only a minute to explain what I have in mind. Listen. [Sits on chair.]

SUZANNE: I won't listen!

THE COUNT [takes her hand]: You know that the King has appointed me his ambassador in London. I'm taking Figaro with me. I'm giving him an excellent job, and as a wife's duty is to follow her husband . . .

SUZANNE: Ah! If only I dare speak!

THE COUNT [drawing her to him]: Speak. Speak, my dear! Take advantage here and now of your influence over me, an influence that will endure . . .

SUZANNE [alarmed]: I wish for none, Sir! I wish for none! Leave me, I beseech you!

(from The Marriage of Figaro, Act I)

*

3. Anthony Powell, Casanova's Chinese Restaurant (1960). Set in about 1936. The fifth volume in A Dance to the Music of Time, focussed on Nick's contacts in the musical world, on adultery and despair. One of the best, in my opinion (all the better because Widmerpool appears only fleetingly). This extract is from an uncomfortable evening in Pimlico:

'Carolo is always losing keys,' said Maclintick. 'He'll have to pay for a new one himself this time.  It costs a fortune keeping him in keys. I can't remember whether I told you Carolo has come to us as a lodger, Moreland.'

'No,' said Moreland, 'you didn't. How did that happen?'

Moreland seemed surprised, for some reason not best pleased at this piece of information.

'He was in low water,' Maclintick said, speaking if he were himself not specially anxious to go into explanations. 'So were we. It seemed a good idea at the time. I'm not so sure now. In fact I've been thinking of getting rid of him.'

'How is he doing?' asked Moreland. 'Carolo is always very particular about what jobs he will take on. All that business about teaching being beneath his dignity.'

'He says he likes time for that work of his he is always tinkering about with,' said Maclintick. 'I shall be very surprised if anything ever comes of it.'

'I like Carolo here,' said Mrs Maclintick. 'He gives very little trouble. I don't want to die of melancholia, never seeing a soul.'

'What do you mean?' said Maclintick. 'Look at the company we have got tonight. What I can't stick is having Carolo scratching away at the other end of the room whjen I am eating. Why can't he keep the same hours as other people?'

'You are always saying artists ought to be judged by different standards from other people,' said Mrs Maclintick fiercely. 'Why shouldn't Carolo keep the hours he likes? He is an artist, isn't he?'

'Carolo may be an artist,' said Maclintick, puffing out a long jet of smoke from his mouth, 'but he is a bloody unsuccessful one nowadays. One of those talents that have dried up, in my opinion. I certainly don't see him blossoming out as a composer. Look here, you two had better stay to supper. As Audrey says, we don't often have company . . .'

(from Casanova's Chinese Restaurant, Chapter 2)

*

4. Peter Mortimer, Broke Through Britain: One Man's Penniless Odyssey (1999). Peter (a freelance writer), decided to spend a month walking from Plymouth to Edinburgh without carrying any money.  All his food and overnight shelter had to be begged; creating a daily situation in which people had to make decisions about trusting a stranger (or not). The result is a fascinating but often sobering national portrait. I'm very glad he wrote this book,  -- at the last possible moment before the spread of mobile phones and internet banking would have radically impacted its premiss. (At one point someone invites Peter to use the Internet to prove that he is indeed a bona fide published author, but the service is so unreliable they soon give up.)

 At the hunt kennels in Herefordshire, they get a phone call:

... We'd all seen dead cow meat hanging from butcher's hooks. Most of us had eaten beef at some time. Seeing a dead cow in a field was different. Other herd members stood around, chewed the cud and stared. I noted the cow's swollen udder, milk that would never be drunk.

Peter backed the wagon up close to the corpse and slung the steel hawser around the cow's neck ready for winching. There was a slow whirring sound, and the neck stretched grotesquely from the pull of the hawser. I found myself stupidly wondering if it was painful. Finally the beast was dragged forwards, up the ramp and into the open back of the wagon. The cow was too long. Peter needed to yank it so the head was pushed up against the back of the cab. For a moment it seemed this rearing head was alive, seemed its brown eye, like an open tin of golden syrup, was staring directly at me. Then the head slumped, the illusion was gone. Peter wedged in the feet and bolted up the end of the wagon. We drove off. 'What did the cow die of?' I asked. He shrugged his shoulders. By the time we arrived back, there was already an answerphone query from the vet. Dead cows were a sensitive issue. 

(from Broke Through Britain, Day Eleven -- Wednesday, 5 August)

*

5. Brigid Brophy, The Snow Ball (1964). A novel (her fourth, approximately), but closely related to her non-fiction writing, especially Mozart the Dramatist. The novel takes place in a night. It concerns a masked ball in contemporary London, in which the central characters are dressed as Donna Anna and Don Giovanni. Here are two cabaret performers: 

A man without characteristics hurried on to the platform, shifted the double bass and sat rapidly down at the piano. 

He was followed by a thin girl with thin straight colourless hair to her shoulders. She wore a short evening dress consisting of horizontal black frills which swaddled her tightly to just above the knees. Her legs, in very pale, peanut-colured nylons, were thin, straight, and apparently unbending -- the legs of whitewood furniture: only the narrow knee cap made a small obtruction in the straightness, like an adam's apple; and when the girl took a step it looked as though her legs had swallowed. Her high-heeled shoes had a narrow, twenties-ish strap across the instep.

She paid no attention to her audience but stood with her back to them while she turned a nozzle of instructions on to her pianist, who sat with his head bent over the keyboard paying, in his turn, no attention to her. 

(from The Snow Ball, Chapter 8)

*

And finally 6., which I'm currently half-way through, Wole Soyinka's The Interpreters (1965), a big and complex novel about a group of bright young Nigerians in Ibadan. I don't feel able to pick an extract while I'm still in the middle of being bewildered by it, so instead here's one of his poems I found online. 


Massacre, October '66

Written in Tegel

Shards of sunlight touch me here
shredded in willows. Through stained-glass
Fragments on the lake I sought to reach
A mind at silt-bed

The lake stayed cold
I swam in an October flush of dying leaves
The gardener’s labour flew in seasoned scrolls
Lettering the wind

Swept from painted craft
A mockery of waves remarked this idyll sham
I trod on acorns; each shell’s detonation
Aped the skull’s uniqueness.

Came sharper reckoning –
This favoured food of hogs cannot number high
As heads still harshly crop to whirlwinds
I have briefly fled

The oak rains a hundred more
A kind confusion to arithmetics of death:
Time to watch autumn the removal man
Dust down rare canvases

To let a loud resolve of passion
Fly to a squirrel, burnished light and copper fur
A distant stance without the lake’s churchwindows
And for a stranger, love.

A host of acorns fell, silent
As they are silenced all, whose laughter
Rose from such indifferent paths, oh God
They are not strangers all

Whose desecration mocks the word
Of peace – salaam aleikun – not strangers any
Brain of thousands pressed asleep to pig fodder –
Shun pork the unholy – cries the priest.

I borrow seasons of an alien land
In brotherhood of ill, pride of race around me
Strewn in sunlit shards. I borrow alien lands
To stay the season of a mind.

 

(Source .)


(The title refers to the anti-Igbo pogroms across northern Nigeria in 1966, precursors to the Biafran war of 1967-70. The poem is located beside Lake Tegel (Tegeler See) in Reinickendorf, NW Berlin. The large lake is set in woodland known for its oak trees.)


Spotted Hawkweed (Hieracium maculatum). Frome, 2 June 2021.


How to opt out of having your GP medical history shared with NHS Digital for future corporate and commercial use (you have until 23rd June 2021):

https://medconfidential.org/how-to-opt-out/

Article by Ameen Kamlana:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jun/03/gp-nhs-digital-data-patients-records-england


Remote Sedge (Carex remota). Frome, 2 June 2021.

Remote Sedge (Carex remota). Frome, 2 June 2021.



Grey Sedge (Carex divulsa). Frome, 8 June 2021.

Grey Sedge (Carex divulsa). Frome, 8 June 2021.



Hawkweed leaves, spotted and not. Frome, 2 June 2021.





Labels: , , , , ,

Sunday, May 30, 2021

everlasting oil

Lady. This way the noise was, if mine ear be true,
My best guide now. Methought it was the sound
Of riot and ill-managed merriment,
Such as the jocund flute or gamesome pipe
Stirs up among the loose unletter'd hinds,
When, for their teeming flocks and granges full,
In wanton dance they praise the bounteous Pan,
And thank the gods amiss. I should be loth
To meet the rudeness and swill'd insolence
Of such late wassailers; yet O where else
Shall I inform my unacquainted feet
In the blind mazes of this tangled wood?
My brothers, when they saw me wearied out
With this long way, resolving here to lodge
Under the spreading favour of these pines,
Stepped, as they said, to the next thicket-side
To bring me berries, or such cooling fruit
As the kind hospitable woods provide.
They left me then when the grey-hooded Even
Like a sad votarist in palmer’s weed
Rose from the hindmost wheels of Phœbus’ wain.
But where they are, and why they came not back,
Is now the labour of my thoughts. ’Tis likeliest
They had engaged their wandering steps too far;
And envious darkness, ere they could return,
Had stole them from me: else O thievish Night,
Why shouldst thou, but for some felonious end,
In thy dark lantern thus close up the stars
That Nature hung in Heav'n, and fill'd their lamps
With everlasting oil, to give due light
To the misled and lonely traveller?
This is the place, as well as I may guess,
Whence even now the tumult of loud mirth
Was rife, and perfect in my listening ear,
Yet nought but single darkness do I find.
What might this be? A thousand fantasies
Begin to throng into my memory
Of calling shapes and beckoning shadows dire
And airy tongues that syllable men’s names
On sands and shores and desert wildernesses.
These thoughts may startle well, but not astound
The virtuous mind, that ever walks attended
By a strong siding champion, Conscience.
O welcome, pure-eyed Faith, white-handed Hope,
Thou hovering angel girt with golden wings,
And thou unblemished form of Chastity!
I see ye visibly, and now believe
That He, the Supreme Good, t'whom all things ill
Are but as slavish officers of vengeance,
Would send a glistering guardian if need were
To keep my life and honour unassail'd.
Was I deceived, or did a sable cloud
Turn forth her silver lining on the night?
I did not err, there does a sable cloud
Turn forth her silver lining on the night,
And casts a gleam over this tufted grove.
I cannot hallo to my brothers, but
Such noise as I can make to be heard farthest
I’ll venture, for my new-enliven'd spirits
Prompt me; and they perhaps are not far off

(John Milton's Comus, lines 170-229)


*

Lost in the woods. Simplicity: myth, fairy tale, something close to us, something serious. All Milton's poetry has this same radical directness: as if he's struck a line through all the other poetic agendas of his time, and starts from somewhere else. He was the most learned poet, yet the poem's engagement with the reader is characterized by simplicity. 

*

Milton's Comus is perhaps the only masque that most of us casual poetry fans know. By placing it at the end of his Poems of 1645, with the title A Mask Presented At Ludlow Castle, 1634. &c., Milton offered it to the reader as a poem, but a poem with a framing context,  a conveyed sense of the poem being something else than just a poem. 

But whereas most later developments of this fertile idea propose a fictional context (e.g. "Written with a Slate Pencil, on a Stone, on the Side of the Mountain of Black Comb". . .) , this one was true. Comus really had been a masque, performed as stated, at Ludlow Castle in Shrophire, then the luxuriously furnished seat of the Council in the Marches of Wales. (After the civil war it was allowed to fall in to decay.)

Not all the lines that we read today were delivered on that memorable Michaelmas night (29 September, 1634). Milton made some later additions. There were also performance cuts, which can be seen by comparing the Trinity MS (representing Milton's draft) with the Bridgewater MS (apparently a prompt copy from the performance). 

The speech I've quoted, for instance, was quite drastically reduced (as shown by the italics). The Lady in the Ludlow performance -- that is, the real Lady -- was the fifteen-year-old Alice Egerton. Masquers always played themselves. But Alice didn't speak the lines about the "gray-hooded Even" (188-190), and after "Had stole them from me" (195) her script jumped briskly to "I cannot hallo" (226), preparing for the delivery of her song.

John Egerton (eleven) and Thomas Egerton (nine) also played themselves: the Elder and Second Brother respectively. Their lines were a little slimmed down, too. Doubtless this was all organized by the children's tutor Henry Lawes, who himself played the Attendant Spirit. 

These three children of the Earl of Bridgewater were experienced masquers. Alice and John had been two of the Influences in Inigo Jones' spectacular production of Tempe Restored (Aurelian Townshend, Shrove-Tuesday 1632); their elder sister Catherine had taken part too. [John appears in the list of masquers under the title of Lord Ellesmere.]

John and Thomas had been in Thomas Carew's Coelum Brittannicum (18 February 1634) among the "troop of young Lords and Noble-mens sonnes, bearing Torches of Virgin-wax, these were apparelled after the old Brittish fashion in white Coats, embroydered with silver, girt, and full gathered, cut square coller'd, and round caps on their heads, with a white feather wreathen about them". 

Surely all three children had also taken part in Arcades (4 May 1634), the country-house masque in honour of their grandmother Alice, the Countess of Derby, for which Milton, at Lawes' request, had supplied some verse.  (The Countess of Derby had been a masquer herself. She had taken part in Ben Jonson's Masque of Queens back in 1609.)

*

Yet Comus feels different from all other masques of the time. Masques accompany an earthly celebration in which court or guests or family and friends pay tribute to someone. (In this case, the Earl of Bridgewater, the children's father, taking up the post of Lord Lieutenant of Wales.) Such drama as exists in other masques is usually a matter of e.g. manufactured ructions among the classical gods in response to the outstanding achievement being honoured today. For instance, in Coelum Britannicum the conceit is that Jove and Juno have mended their ways in emulation of the virtues of Charles and Henrietta, and now intend to rename the heavenly constellations to take out references to Jove's wild amours. The classical gods, played by professional actors, did most of the speaking. The modest role of the masquers/guests was to play themselves, largely as dancers or performers of simple ritual gestures. 

 Already, in Arcades, Milton sees the potential in making drama out of something else than these burlesque flurries: the journeying of the guests to the celebration. Even in Arcades, the result is a sobriety and reverence that we find ourselves attending to do at a far deeper level. 

In Comus Milton takes this idea much further. His three Egerton family masquers are still playing themselves, but they now have major speaking parts and are involved in dramatic scenes with each other and with others. I don't know of any other masque that even slightly resembles Comus in the amount of dramatic speech and action allotted to the real people in the masque. 

Women masquers had taken silent parts in the earliest of Jonson's masques -- Anne of Denmark was an enthusiastic participant. But had there ever been any meaningful precedent to what the audience witnessed at Ludlow on 29 September 1634:  a woman (Alice),  supposedly playing herself but undeniably acting a fictional adventure in face-to-face confrontation with a fictional character (Comus, thought to have been performed by a professional actor) : performing a speaking (and singing) role on a large scale before a large audience?  *

The idea of journeying has grown into an adventure on the way, an adventure in the wild country that lies between safe dwellings. 

                                             But their way
Lies through the perlex'd paths of this drear wood,
The nodding horror of whose shady brows
Threats the forlorn and wandering passenger. 

(Comus, ll. 36-39)


The story plays into deeply-held social anxieties about letting the children of gentlefolk, especially the girls, stray out into a world where they could be waylaid by ruffians. Yet it's apparent that this wood represents much more than the fear of wild Welshmen or Hertfordshire hinds. It also represents the World, that place of temptation for all Christians, a spiritual arena from which it isn't possible to shield children indefinitely. 

When the tempter Comus steps forth, he is a kind of classical figure (son of Circe) but he isn't a burlesque or a decorative flourish. He's a confrontation that none of us can escape. It has the seriousness of a fairy tale. 



Title page of the first publication of Comus (1637)


[Image source: Wikipedia .]

The motto comes from Virgil's Eclogues (II, 58-59):

Eheu quid volui misero mihi! floribus austrum Perditus ("Alas! what harm did I wish upon my wretched self by allowing the south wind to blow upon my flowers?").   

John Milton's name didn't appear, and the motto seems to express mixed feelings about going public.


*

Rosemary Karmelich Mundhenk, "Dark Scandal and the Sun-Clad Power of Chastity: The Historical Milieu of Milton's Comus" (Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol 15 No 1 (Winter, 1975)):

Informative on the historical context, the Castlehaven scandal (the terrible sexual mistreatment of the Countess's elder sister by her husband, executed in 1631), the performance cuts and later revisions. Many scholars, however, think that the Castlehaven scandal isn't something Comus would want to allude to in the slightest degree. I think so too, but, the dark threat of Comus will, for many readers, seem to resonate with their imagination of the deranged Earl of Castlehaven and his servants. A poem's meaning can never be controlled by its author, and still less by other readers. 

*

Below, two pages from a very useful site put together by Helen L. Hull, Meg F. Pearson, and Erin A. Sadlack. The site also contains the four early texts of Comus (Trinity, Bridgewater, 1637, 1645). 

A Performance History of Comus: (HPS Perf Hist)
An Egerton Family History:

*

A scene from Lucy Bailey's Comus, with Emma Curtis as The Lady/Alice Egerton

[Image source: https://europeanstages.org/2017/05/05/john-miltons-comus-a-masque-presented-at-ludlow-castle-shakespeares-globe-london/ . Image supplied by Shakespeare's Globe, London.]

Informative article by Neil Forsyth, on the occasion of Lucy Bailey's Globe production of Comus in 2016:

https://europeanstages.org/2017/05/05/john-miltons-comus-a-masque-presented-at-ludlow-castle-shakespeares-globe-london/

(It's mostly taken from his John Milton: A Biography (2008), a book that I've managed to download, though I'm not sure how legally or safely.)

One thing I hadn't read elsewhere: "The Egerton children, Alice in particular, had in the times right before the performance of the masque, complained of demonic possession, and had been treated with protective amulets and St. John’s wort."

(This information comes from Barbara Breasted's "Another Bewitching of Lady Alice Egerton, the Lady of Comus", Notes and Queries 17 (1970), pp. 411-412 -- but I haven't seen this.)

The biography adds "by the well-known physician John Napier". Not well known to me. Is this a mistake for Richard Napier, the astrological specialist?

The Egerton family certainly consulted with Richard Napier. Here's Boyd Brogan's presentation of the Richard Napier/Egerton cases: https://casebooks.lib.cam.ac.uk/using-the-casebooks/meet-the-patients/the-egertons 

The Egerton casebooks are mainly about Magdalen and Alice (to some degree Penelope),  but I cannot track down anything like the details mentioned by Barbara Breasted. It's true that on 15 October 1632 (letter of Robert Napier) the Countess was wondering if Alice's fits might be due to bewitchment by the disaffected husband of their gentlewoman Mrs Quicke. In response Richard Napier cast an astrological figure but his conclusions are not recorded.

*

Milton's three child masquers were perhaps the youngest children of John Egerton, First Earl of Bridgewater (1579 - 4 December 1649) and his wife Frances née Stanley (m. 1602, d. 11 March 1636). Information online is confused and contradictory. The DNB (2004) says there were 15 children (entry on Frances Stanley) or 11 children (entry on John Egerton). I have seen mention of 14 names, and I've managed to gather some information about 12 of them.  


1. Frances (m.  February 1621 to Sir John Hobart. The eldest daughter, according to the DNB entry on Frances Stanley.  d. 27 November 1664)
2. Arabella (m. 1623 to the politician Oliver St John, d. c. 1669)
3. Elizabeth b. c. 1604 (m. David Cecil, Earl of Exeter, d. 1688)
4. Mary (b. c. 1606, m. Richard Herbert, Baron Herbert of Chirbury, d. 1659)
5. Penelope (b. 17 August 1610; appeared as a masquer in Jonson's Chloridia (Shrove Tuesday 1631), the last of his collaborations with Inigo Jones; married Robert Napier, nephew of the astrologer).
6. Catherine (Katherine) (b. 1611, m. the merchant William Courten, d. c. 25 March 1651)
7. Magdalen (b. 7 August 1615, m. Sir Gervase Cutler, d. 1664)
8. James died in childhood (b. 21 Sep 1616, d. c Dec 1620)
9. Charles died in childhood (b. c. 1617, d. c Apr 1623)
10. Alice (b. 13 June 1619. After her mother's death (1636), took care of her semi-invalid father until his own death in 1649. Married Richard Vaughan, Earl of Carbery in 1652, d. circa July 1689)
11. John, Viscount Brackley (b. 30 May 1623, d. 26 October 1686) -- heir to the earldom, his two elder brothers being already dead by the time of his birth.
12. Thomas (b. 1625, d. 1648)

There may also have been:

13? Anne.  Mentioned in thepeerage.com, referencing the DNB (but evidently not the 2004 entries I've seen); I can't find any other information about her.
14? Cecilia.  Mentioned in thepeerage.com, referencing the DNB (but evidently not the 2004 entries I've seen); I can't find any other information about her.
15?  Another daughter, if the figures given in the 2004 DNB entry for Frances Stanley are correct (15 children: 11 daughters and four sons).

Main sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Egerton,_1st_Earl_of_Bridgewater  (which says there were only eight children) 
DNB entry for Frances Stanley (2004):
DNB entry for John Egerton, first Earl of Bridgewater (2004):

*

Women taking part in Masques

Anne of Denmark commissioned and danced in a number of masques from 1604-09. E.g. Samuel Daniel's The Vision of the Twelve Goddesses (1604), Ben Jonson's Masque of Blackness (1605), etc. 

Another masque with women speakers:

Cupid's Banishment: A Maske Presented to Her Maiesty by Younge Gentlewomen of the Ladies Hall, in Deptford, Greenwich the 4th of May 1617  (Robert White)

See Clare McManus, Silenced voices / speaking bodies: female performance and cultural agency in the court of Anne of Denmark (1603-19), PhD thesis (University of Warwick), 1997.


On the two women speakers (Circe and Harmony) in Tempe Restored:

Melinda J. Gough, "'Not as Myself': The Queen's Voice in Tempe Restored", Modern Philology Vol 101 (2003):


Labels:

Powered by Blogger