Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Crowhurst fields

Overgrown path, with Foxgloves and Marsh Thistle. 

Crowhurst in East Sussex is a straggling, inarticulate sort of village but it's also a kind of land unto itself. It wouldn't be too much of an exaggeration to say that the whole unvisited region bounded by the main roads linking Battle, Bexhill and St Leonards is in a broad sense "Crowhurst country". (A bit like "the Brightling country", the empty quarter west of Battle and Robertsbridge, named after a village whose actual existence, on Google Maps, comes as something of a surprise.)

Here are some plants I saw on a family walk, mainly through arable fields. I was with Annika, Jay, Nick, Tash, Mir, Barry, Finn and Sigrid. We walked from Crowhurst Park to the Plough, where Mum and Dad joined us and we had an excellent lunch.

"Crowhurst country".

Hairy Buttercup (Ranunculus sardous). Crowhurst, 27 June 2024.

As we walked along I started noticing this little buttercup here and there on the path. It turned out to be Ranunculus sardous (Hairy Buttercup), an uncommon species with a very south-easterly distribution in the British Isles. Distribution-wise it's basically a Mediterranean plant.

Reflexed sepals, hairy all over. Not found in Sweden.  

Hairy Buttercup (Ranunculus sardous). Crowhurst, 27 June 2024.

Reflexed sepals of Hairy Buttercup (Ranunculus sardous). Crowhurst, 27 June 2024.

Hairy stems, buds and leaves of Hairy Buttercup (Ranunculus sardous). Crowhurst, 27 June 2024.

Marsh Cudweed (Gnaphalium uliginosum). Crowhurst, 27 June 2024. 

The Hairy Buttercup was growing alongside Marsh Cudweed (Gnaphalium uliginosum, Sw: Sumpnoppa), so I guess it's normally pretty damp on this path, though happily not on the day we were there. 

Ranunculus sardous and Gnaphalium uliginosum. Crowhurst, 27 June 2024.

A mystery plant. One of those casuals on arable land that I usually ignore, especially when there's only one of them and it looks like it might be of garden origin. 

Anyway, the thread-like leaves suggest a robust mayweed chamomile Anthemis kind of thing, but the crowded rays are more suggestive of a Shasta Daisy (Leucanthemum). Rhodanthemum hosmariense from the Atlas Mountains came up on Google Lens -- but no, just no.

Four-seeded pod of Smooth Tare (Vicia tetrasperma). Crowhurst, 27 June 2024.

Smooth Tare (Vicia tetrasperma aka Ervum tetraspermum).  I couldn't manage to take a clear photo of the little flowers, but I was more successful with this pod, showing why the species is called "tetrasperma". 

British Isles: throughout England and the lowland parts of Wales, more scattered in Scotland and Ireland. 

The Swedish name is Sparvvicker ("Sparrow Vetch"). Common in southern and central Sweden, occasional further north. 

The English name naturally recalls the Parable of the Tares:

Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field:
But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way.
But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. ....

(Matthew 13:24-26)

The point of the parable depends on the tares being difficult to detect when young. Evidently these biblical tares were a grass contaminant of wheat fields. Probably darnel (Lolium temulentum), whose sowing in crop fields was a crime in Roman law. Flour containing even a small amount of darnel was worthless, because darnel is apt to be infected by a fungus that renders it toxic.

Why little vetches like this one came to be called "tares" I don't know. They do like arable fields, but I've never read that they're considered a serious pest.

Common Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii). Crowhurst,  27 June 2024.

Passing through a small wood at this point....  Annika found this pretty orchid. 

Swedish name: Skogsnycklar. 

Bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara). Crowhurst, 27 June 2024.

Bittersweet aka Woody Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara).... a snaking vine descending from quite high in the canopy.

Swedish name: Besksöta. It grows as far north as Medelpad. 

Goat's-rue (Galega officinalis). Crowhurst, 27 June 2024.

Goat's-rue (Galega officinalis) beside the path, snapped as we were filing through a tunnel walkway under the railway line.

A traditional medicinal herb, with components that reduce blood sugar. Study of those components led to the development of metformin, a mainstream treatment for type 2 diabetes. 

Native to southern Europe, introduced in the British Isles and Sweden.

Swedish name: Getruta. Like the English name it's a translation of the pre-Linnaean Latin name Ruta capraria. 

Scented Mayweed/ German Chamomile (Matricaria recutita).Crowhurst, 27 June 2024.

Anyway, speaking of chamomile.....

A huge and fragrant expanse of Scented Mayweed (Matricaria recutita), also known as German Chamomile. 

Though this is not the species that older books call Chamomile, it is the one that's now most often used for chamomile tea. 

It's all very confusing, and recent name changes don't help. For my own benefit, here's a list of the main chamomile/mayweed species. 

(All have feathery dissected leaves, unlike e.g. Oxeye Daisy.)

1. Matricaria recutita also known as Matricaria chamomilla. English: Scented Mayweed, German Chamomile. Swedish: Kamomill, Sötblomster ("Sweet Flower"). Fragrant annual. Locally common in England and Wales; common in southern and central Sweden. Prefers sandy soils, so I never see it around Frome. It's used to make chamomile tea.

2. Chamaemelum nobile, formerly Anthemis nobilis. English: Chamomile, Roman Chamomile. Swedish: Romersk kamomill. Fragrant perennial. A similar but more prostrate, creeping plant of dry sandy commons. In Britain it's frequent but decreasing; I think it's only a garden escape in Sweden. This is the species you need if you want to make a chamomile lawn. It's also used to make chamomile tea. Valued in traditional medicine since the Middle Ages; it was "noble" because it was considered superior to 1 from the therapeutic point of view.

3. Tripleurospermum inodorum, until recently considered the same species as 4 and named T. maritimum ssp. inodorum. The older name Tripleurospermum perforatum still shows up sometimes. English: Scentless Mayweed. Swedish: Baldersbrå ("Balder's Brow"). Common annual in both the British Isles and Sweden. Scentless. Looks similar to 1 but the rays don't bend back so quickly. 

4. Tripleurospermum maritimum, until recently considered the same species as 3 and named T. maritimum ssp. maritimum. English: Sea Mayweed. Swedish: Kustbaldersbrå. A coastal species, similar in appearance to 3 but with fleshier leaves and often red stems. Smells faintly of chamomile. 

5. Anthemis cotula. English: Stinking Chamomile. Swedish: Kamomillkulla or Surkulla. Looks similar to 1 and 3, but smells unpleasant (fetid) and has scales on inner florets. Local on clay soils in S England; very rare in Sweden.

6. Matricaria discoidea, formerly  matricarioides and suaveolens. English: Pineappleweed. Swedish: Gatkamomill ("Street Chamomile"). Introduction from N America. Very common annual in British Isles and Sweden, especially on paths and tracks. This one is unmistakable as it has no ray-florets. Smells of pineapple. 

Scented Mayweed/ German Chamomile (Matricaria recutita).Crowhurst, 27 June 2024.

By now it was getting hot. Tash and Sigrid had adorned their hair with sprigs of campion and cinquefoil. We had passed the wooden crocodile and the wooden gorilla, seizing the usual photo opportunities. Barry went on ahead to collect Mum and Dad. Finn and I raced to get to the pub first. Drinks were soon flowing!

Our food order, with pictures by me, Sigrid and Tash.

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Maj 5


melos mid morning

close gap square crazy staircase

busses beep by back

air vent commerce round toilets

di lo que quieras pero no negarás

jetplanes without trails

commission over calm and pine

messaging       have you paid


    sea  front
open to parks
   men  in  red
blew rhythmically
 in   tubas
trombone elbows
  boys  in  blue
old ladies listened
plummeted  clapping
 their wings
crashing waves
   washed and
gathered  and
   grew  big
all   around
and it blew
coats in the chair
stout  shoes
 of the listening ladies


  tumbling into sky
boys on the balcony
Corona bottle half full 
the hum of the
                night sky
Magaluf      Beach Bars
ye snitch!
    ye faggot!
Both beauties he
sang a love song
so drunk at dawn
with the sensible
talking all night
someone got a
                 neck tat
    on the strip
air port   pickup
girls on the balcony
photos with the
    beach behind
all night between bays
swelling sound
bobbing DJ
launched module

Thanks to a lucky late cancellation we were at this unwontedly classy hotel on the bit of high ground where Palma Nova becomes Magaluf. 

Breakfast on the terrace was fabulous. 

The main challenge was our dependence on tea at all other times. There was no kettle in the room, so a lot of flask filling was required, both at breakfast and late at night. The bar staff were amenable. 

I remembered that in the era when we went on lots of package holidays I used to bring a small travelling kettle. I thought about buying one, but the shops in these resorts are all about short stay. Everyone's just passing through. Bottles of water, beach towels, souvenirs, ice-creams, pharmacy, sun-glasses.... Not furniture or electrical goods.

It's a holiday camp, it's not for staying. Yet having been here so often it still felt like an alternative homeland. We looked idly for the hotels where we once stayed in Maj 1, 2 and 4 (Maj 3 was in Alcudia). We couldn't find them. In the intervening twenty years the hotel names had changed. This time we were in Cooks Club Calvia Beach, which the airport transfer ticket revealed was the old Honululu (information only relevant to minibus drivers). Sure enough, back of the iconically Cooks Club frontage, the clean lines of the restaurant terrace and the speedy glass lifts and the gunmetal gym, was evidence of the building's former existence: stolid stairwells of a less modern design, a less pacy set of lifts. 

We were all modern; we the visitors, the music, the businesses... but the resorts also proclaimed the eternal verities of resort life: sun, sand, sea swimming, pedalos, ice-cream and postcards. 

Dusty rain shower, a few minutes that impressively mottled all the parked cars and railings. 

Norfolk Island Hibiscus (Lagunaria patersonia). 

I've never clocked it before, but I imagine it's quite a popular introduction in Mediterranean resorts, both as a hedge component and as a small free-standing tree. Native to Norfolk Island and parts of the Queensland coast. 

The other essential component of our tea dependence. We exhausted the stocks of the local Spar. Vive Soy makes a great point of all its soya being grown in Spain. And it made an excellent cup of tea.

It isn't organic like the soya drink we buy at home, but I'm still living under the impression, which I prefer not to disturb though it's possibly out of date, that EU soya is not GMO.

[This appears to still be true, in 2024. While the EU allows the import of GMO soy beans for food and feed, it does not allow cultivation within the EU itself. 90% of N and S American soybeans are GMO, according to what I've read.]

The names of Magaluf and Palma Nova are known all over Europe. But within the local organisation of Mallorca they are just a part of Ajuntament Calvià. Calvià is the small inland town that administers these massive thronging resorts as well as Santa Ponça and others. 

Lots of ice-creams got eaten. Naturally, as we were in the Balearics (for the first time in nearly twenty years), I tried to eat my way through the extensive range of La Menorquina.

But later, unfolding the crushed wrapper in the airport, I was shocked to discover that my absolute favourite ice-cream of the week was made by Farggi. Whatever, it was heavenly.

But maybe I wasn't such a traitor, because it looks as if Farggi might be a premium brand of La Menorquina anyway. 

(Laura didn't bother with this essentialist nonsense. She stuck to Magnum Classic throughout.)

Tuesday, July 09, 2024

Swedish county letters

A Mora knife from the 1930s-40s

In two hours there appeared just eight cars.

Two Volvos, two puttering Saabs, a Borgward Isabella, a Hillman, a Morris Minor with an old guy at the wheel and a green Opel Olympia.

But actually it wasn't the types of car that interested us but the county letters. 

It was Bert-Egon and me who were sitting there on the milk table below Uncle Arvid's house. It was Friday evening and as usual we had nothing in particular to do.

We sat and dangled our feet and dug out splinters from the weatherbeaten planks with our Mora knives and looked at the cars that went past. 

And there were not many.

The majority were Y reg cars,but two were from AC. One of the Saabs was an A reg. That was a Stockholmer. At that point we jumped down off the milk table and threw stones after it until it disappeared in a cloud of dust in the direction of Nybystrand.

"The next one's a P," said Bert-Egon.

"P?" I said. "Where does a P reg car come from? That must be way down south, eh? Skåne or Småland or Blekinge?"

"Got no idea," answered Bert-Egon. "I've never seen P on a car, but there's always a first time, like the girl said."

We were playing a game. We had to guess which county letter the next car would have. I was 5-3 up, so it was a bit weird that Bert-Egon took such a gamble instead of going for Y.

"A," I said, even though I reckoned it would be a Y.

But we were both wrong. Around the bend behind the bridge came a strange procession, no less than three cars in convoy. Three big American cars that rolled forward on the gravel road. 

The first one was a Chevrolet Bel Air, Bert-Egon knew that one, with grillwork like a grinning mouth, a jetplane as hood ornament, and fins.

The second was even bigger, with even longer fins, black and white, but with the same dollar grin.

The third was all black, just as big as the second car but not quite so snazzy, more sober and solemn, as if it was carrying a mourner or a state governor.

But all three seemed run-down and dirty. 

We stood up on the milk table, as if in tribute, and gaped with wide eyes. 

"The second one's a De Soto and the last one a Chrysler," whispered Bert-Egon, his voice filled with admiration.

"And we both got it wrong," I whispered."X, what is that?"

"I'm not sure," said Bert-Egon. "Gävle, I think. What cars!"

They had already started to turn in towards us. ...

(Opening of Spådomen (The fortune), a 1988 young adult novel by Bo R Holmberg.)


The story takes place in the early 1960s in rural Ångermanland in the north of Sweden. 

The county letters (länsbokstäver) formed the alphabetical part of Swedish number plates between 1907 and 1973. They caught on and still sometimes show up in other contexts. 

The ones referred to here: 

Y: Västernorrlands län. The local county letter in Ångermanland. 

AC: Västerbottens län. The border is just to the north of where the story is set.

A: Stockholm city. Not very near to Ångermanland, but Stockholm being so much more populous than the northern counties, an A car would be a fairly common sight. 

P: Not the far south as Lasse surmises, but Älvsborgs län. Incorporated into Västra Götalands län in 1998, it was a region inland from Gothenburg that included e.g. Borås and the historic county of Dalsland.

X: Bert-Egon was right, X meant Gävleborgs län.

Full list here: 


Puttering Saabs: the Saab of those days had a two-stroke engine. It was agile, lightweight and could win rallies but it wasn't a status car. 

Milk table: the table outside a farm where dairy vehicles would collect the full milk churns and return the empty ones.

Nybystrand: As in other Holmberg books, this means Nyland (the town near Bollstabruk on the Ångerman river).

The dollar grin: an expression that apparently originated in the Britain of post-war rationing, enviously referring to the dazzling wide grillwork of American cars that Britons couldn't afford.


The two boys make friends with this traveller family and eventually they have their fortunes told. Their stories are going to be so different. Lasse, an imaginative but ordinary boy from a happy, stable family, with a deep attachment to his village. You could see him becoming a regional novelist one day...

And Bert-Egon, from a disastrously broken home, with a binge-drinking father, having to grow up fast, spontaneous, moody, sometimes compliant and sometimes crazy, having to take the kind of decisions that his friend will never have to face. 

It's a concise book, easy to read, but it stirs up some of the same depths as the more complex Dagsmeja, the adult novel that Holmberg wrote next.

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Monday, July 01, 2024

Byron's Manfred (1817)

Manfred et l'esprit, 1831 painting by Charles Durupt.

[Image source: Wikipedia . Charles Durupt (1804 - 1831) was a French painter born in Paris. Manfred in his gallery at midnight summons the elemental spirits (Act I Scene 1). In the poem the spirits have no corporeal form until, at Manfred's insistence, the Seventh Spirit assumes one; it takes the form of a beautiful woman; an apparition that overwhelms Manfred and then vanishes leaving him crushed. Given that Durupt's painting shows Manfred as engaged but not particularly overwhelmed, and that the figure is carrying a kind of wand, I'm inclined to think that it actually depicts the First Spirit (the relatively amiable spirit of the air). ]

ACT 1.

Scene 1.—Manfred alone.—Scene, a Gothic Gallery.—Time, Midnight.

Man. The lamp must be replenished, but even then
It will not burn so long as I must watch:
My slumbers—if I slumber—are not sleep,
But a continuance, of enduring thought,
Which then I can resist not: in my heart
There is a vigil, and these eyes but close
To look within; and yet I live, and bear
The aspect and the form of breathing men.
But Grief should be the Instructor of the wise;
Sorrow is Knowledge: they who know the most
Must mourn the deepest o'er the fatal truth,
The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life.
Philosophy and science, and the springs
Of Wonder, and the wisdom of the World,
I have essayed, and in my mind there is
A power to make these subject to itself—
But they avail not: I have done men good,
And I have met with good even among men—
But this availed not: I have had my foes,
And none have baffled, many fallen before me—
But this availed not:—Good—or evil—life—
Powers, passions—all I see in other beings,
Have been to me as rain unto the sands,
Since that all-nameless hour. I have no dread,
And feel the curse to have no natural fear,
Nor fluttering throb, that beats with hopes or wishes,
Or lurking love of something on the earth.
Now to my task.—

(Opening lines of Manfred)

So our discovery begins with Manfred's tenderness: for the little life of the lamp, which is echoed a few lines later in the "fluttering throb" of ordinary human expectation.

Yet this tenderness for ordinary things and people, though recurrent, comes with a strong sense of separation. Manfred’s own existence has become an un-slumbering "continuance", a "vigil" notable for its indifference to hopes and fears. 

And though this is a living death, there's a great deal of pride in "Powers, passions -- all I see in other beings, /
Have been to me as rain unto the sands....".

It would be too existentially crushing, now, to question the assumption of his own differentness.

Indeed Manfred seizes on the very horror of the "all-nameless hour", the very extremity of his crime, to bolster that belief in being so damn different from everyone else. 


Manfred begins with Byron streaming Goethe's Faust, but it's just a brushing past, the stories have nothing else to unite them. He uses other writers a lot (check Peter Cochran's edition for the numerous Shakespeare half-quotations) but his own preoccupations and swimmy style are so distinct that we never for a moment think of Manfred as less than 100% Byron. 

The Hellespont, Portovenere to Lerici, across the Tagus, the length of the Grand Canal....

As Mirka Horová and Chris Murray have argued, Byron's love of swimming is totally relevant to his poetic. 

Byron adored swimming -- it was the one activity -- well, maybe along with sex -- where his lameness was no hindrance at all. There's a swimmy aspect to his poetry too, a registering of currents and swells rather than straightforward direction. The editions I've seen contain copious notes, yet it's remarkable how often both the verse and the action contain ambiguous elements on which the editors do not pronounce, and probably can't. We have to make our own sense of it. 

Manfred enthrals as an activity, i.e. because of what it is in each moment, but not particularly because of where it's headed (the hero's death, as we suppose from the very outset). It's very re-readable: but does the hero really develop during the course of the drama, or is he essentially a static image being slowly rotated and revealed to us as he's seen from different aspects?


George Gordon, Lord Byron. Manfred: A Dramatic Poem. Written 1816-1817, except for some or all of the "Incantation" in Act I Scene 1 (1813-1814?) . Published 1817.

Complete text of Manfred, edited by Ernest Hartley Coleridge (1901): 

There's also this useful modern edition by Peter Cochran [PDF]:

The text of Manfred is on Wikisource too, but I noticed one or two glaring OCR errors.

Manfred on the Jungfrau, 1842 painting by Ford Madox Brown.

[Image source: Wikipedia . Ford Madox Brown (1821 - 1893) was a British artist, born in Calais. The painting shows the suicidal Manfred teetering on a precipice, with the Chamois Hunter approaching to rescue him (Act I Scene 2).]

[Manfred.]      ...     Farewell, ye opening Heavens!
Look not upon me thus reproachfully—
You were not meant for me—Earth! take these atoms!

[As Manfred is in act to spring from the cliff, the Chamois Hunter seizes and retains him with a sudden grasp.]

Chamois Hunter. Hold, madman!—though aweary of thy life,
Stain not our pure vales with thy guilty blood:
Away with me——I will not quit my hold.

(From Manfred,  Act I Scene 2.)

Manfred is still seeking oblivion, now through suicide (as was suggested to him during the scene with the spirits). 

But there's a great struggle within him. Recurrent tenderness. In the end he meekly allows the Chamois Hunter to lead him away.

Manfred on the Jungfrau, 1837 watercolour by John Martin.

[Image source: Wikipedia . John Martin (1793 - 1854) was a popular English painter, born in Haydon Bridge, Northumberland. The same scene as Brown's, but now dwarfed by the alpine setting.]

"Prend garde, mon ami ! La prochaine étape est la mort !" 1853 illustration for Manfred by Gustave Doré.

[Image source: Wikipedia  . Gustave Doré (1832 - 1883) was a French painter and illustrator, born in Strasbourg. The title translates the Chamois Hunter's warning: "Friend! have a care, / Your next step may be fatal!" (Act I Scene 2).]

Scene from Manfred, 1833 painting by Thomas Cole.

[Image source: Wikipedia . In Yale University Art Gallery.  Thomas Cole (1801 - 1848) was born in Bolton (Lancashire), emigrated to America in 1818 and is often called the founder of the Hudson River School. The scene shows the Witch of the Alps appearing beneath the sunbow (Act II Scene 2). The figure of Manfred himself is not shown; we are seeing what he sees.]

Witch.                      Son of Earth!
I know thee, and the Powers which give thee power!
I know thee for a man of many thoughts,
And deeds of good and ill, extreme in both,
Fatal and fated in thy sufferings.
I have expected this—what would'st thou with me?

Manfred. To look upon thy beauty—nothing further.
The face of the earth hath maddened me, and I
Take refuge in her mysteries, and pierce
To the abodes of those who govern her—
But they can nothing aid me. I have sought
From them what they could not bestow, and now
I search no further.

Witch.                   What could be the quest
Which is not in the power of the most powerful,
The rulers of the invisible?

Manfred. A boon;—
But why should I repeat it? 'twere in vain.

Witch. I know not that; let thy lips utter it.

Manfred. Well, though it torture me, 'tis but the same;
My pang shall find a voice. From my youth upwards
My Spirit walked not with the souls of men,
Nor looked upon the earth with human eyes;
The thirst of their ambition was not mine,
The aim of their existence was not mine;
My joys—my griefs—my passions—and my powers,
Made me a stranger; though I wore the form,
I had no sympathy with breathing flesh,
Nor midst the Creatures of Clay that girded me
Was there but One who—but of her anon. ...

(From Manfred, Act II Scene 2)

Manfred, calling up the Witch of the Alps, allows himself to become confessional. 

"I had no sympathy with breathing flesh / Nor midst the Creatures of Clay that girded me": the first line refers to (chiefly) men in the business of life; the second line refers to (chiefly) women as sexual partners. Manfred expresses Byron's frequent feeling of being smothered by the sheer availability of sex. 

Like the previous spirit scene, it ends bad-temperedly. 

Manfred has described his sense of alienation from human society; and we've seen how that works out with the Chamois Hunter. Manfred feels and expresses tender things, but this aspect of his character coexists with a prickly standoffishness, a psychotic degree of self-sufficiency. 

But he doesn't feel any more at home in the spirit world. In the play's mythology, the spirits aren't characterized by much interest in human life or death and they see Manfred as very much a "creature of clay" himself: a thing, obeyed but scorned, as the Seventh Spirit puts it. Manfred returns the scorn with interest, and himself asserts the dignity of being "cooped in clay", Man's Promethean fire, etc (streaming Hamlet and Aeschylus). 

Manfred and the Alpine Witch, 1837 watercolour by John Martin.

[Image source: Wikipedia . Unlike Thomas Cole,  John Martin does depict the figure of Manfred -- and accompanied by a weird sort of Brocken spectre-like image of himself.]

Manfred et Astarté, 1892 lithograph by Henri Fantin-Latour

[Image source: Wikipedia  . Henri Fantin-Latour (1836 - 1904) was a French painter and lithographer, born in Grenoble.  Manfred with the Phantom of Astarte, his dead lover -- and sister, presumably (Act II Scene 4). Fantin-Latour was inspired by Schumann's music as well as Byron’s poem. This lithograph, in the Cleveland Museum of Art, is my favourite of Fantin-Latour's many treatments of the subject.]

[Manfred.] ...Speak to me! I have wandered o'er the earth,
And never found thy likeness—Speak to me!
Look on the fiends around—they feel for me:
I fear them not, and feel for thee alone.
Speak to me! though it be in wrath;—but say—
I reck not what—but let me hear thee once—
This once—once more!

Phantom of Astarte. Manfred!

Manfred.                   Say on, say on—
I live but in the sound—it is thy voice!

Phantom. Manfred! To-morrow ends thine earthly ills.

Manfred.     Yet one word more—am I forgiven?

Phantom. Farewell!

Manfred.         Say, shall we meet again?

Phantom.                           Farewell!

Manfred. One word for mercy! Say thou lovest me.

Phantom. Manfred!

[The Spirit of Astarte disappears.]

(From Manfred, Act II Scene 4.)

The meeting with Astarte, or the Phantom or Spirit of Astarte, is the play's tipping point. Things really change here. For instance, the play's opening image of constantly churning mental activity is replaced, in Act III, by the strange calm that Manfred wonders at. The sun, for whom Manfred could feel nothing in I.2, is now the subject of his magnificent farewell. Acceptance has come. 

In the play's mythology, Manfred calls up the elemental spirits, or even appears among the spirits of destiny, with relative ease. On the other hand calling up the dead is portrayed as extremely exceptional and extremely difficult. And one reason I admire this Fantin-Latour picture is that it captures just how very dead Astarte is. If this is brother and sister, what strikes us is their unlikeness, the fact of their belonging to utterly different modes of existence. And for Astarte to say anything at all is clearly extremely difficult, too. 

How should we characterize what happens here? We can note that in calling up Astarte Manfred is seeking the opposite of what he at first sought, namely oblivion. You can see why Manfred longed for oblivion, but in the end it isn't worthy of his determination to live and die on his own terms. Subsequently Manfred has acknowledged his human nature, and his individual history. In the end he needs to face Astarte, not to re-bury her in oblivion.

And yes, he's seeking to assuage his enormous sense of guilt by obtaining forgiveness from his victim (adored victim, of course). 

But he doesn't obtain it, nor any other assurances, only the promise of his own death. 

Maybe it's the lack of pardon that quietens him. Pardon was his own construction of what he sought. But in a real meeting with a real person, we get both more and less than the agenda we construct. 

In this agonizingly minimal interview, Manfred at last encounters someone he loves: his only love. And maybe Manfred's most genuine but least acknowledged feeling throughout the play is not guilt but loneliness. Even his plea for forgiveness is really just about trying to make Astarte say more, to prolong the sound of her voice. 

And where does it leave him afterwards? Unpardoned he may be, but still there's the fact that she knew him, the fact of their joint history, the vastness of shared meaning in her way of saying "Farewell", or "Manfred". In reality it's the most we can expect from the dead. Forgiveness, if it exists at all, lies elsewhere. 

Manfreds Sterbestunde (Manfred's Dying Hour), 1825 painting by Johann Peter Krafft.

[Image source: Wikipedia  . Johann Peter Krafft (1780 - 1856), German painter born in Hanau. From the final scene (Act III Scene 4). Manfred is with the Abbot of St Maurice when the unbidden spirit comes to claim him.]

Abbot. Alas! lost Mortal! what with guests like these
Hast thou to do? I tremble for thy sake:
Why doth he gaze on thee, and thou on him?
Ah! he unveils his aspect: on his brow
The thunder-scars are graven; from his eye
Glares forth the immortality of Hell—

Manfred.     Pronounce—what is thy mission?

Spirit.                                        Come!

Abbot. What art thou, unknown being? answer!—speak!

Spirit. The genius of this mortal.—Come! 'tis time.

Manfred. I am prepared for all things, but deny
The Power which summons me. Who sent thee here?

Spirit. Thou'lt know anon—Come! come!

Manfred.                    I have commanded
Things of an essence greater far than thine,
And striven with thy masters. Get thee hence!

Spirit. Mortal! thine hour is come— ...

(From Manfred, Act III Scene 4.)

(In this final scene Byron is streaming Faust again.) 

Act III has become quite theological. Manfred has taken the view that no-one else (specifically not the Church, and probably not God Himself) has the right to forgive him. If Manfred's own conscience condemns him as guilty, then he's guilty. (Which same argument, by the way, would also invalidate Astarte's forgiveness, had Manfred obtained it.)

And having rejected heavenly consolation, Manfred also rejects the power of Hell. Hell's tempters never tempted him, he claims. Hell hasn't won. His own mind (Man's mind) is immortal. He, Manfred, destroyed himself, he and he alone.

You could respond that this position betrays a rather inflated egotism. How reliable, actually, is an individual conscience? If you are the person who did great evil in the first place, what does this say about your own ability to know right from wrong? Doesn't it rather suggest, as the Witch said, 

...  a man of many thoughts,
And deeds of good and ill, extreme in both,
Fatal and fated in thy sufferings.

.... Someone who probably can't judge anything in a balanced way? Someone whose very first remorseful step, in mere justice if not in any hope, should be to submit themselves to another's guidance? Shouldn't that precious conscience be saying: I obviously can't be trusted to make better decisions than those I once felt so superior to?

And as for Hell's ministers, I think they would be very well content with victims who want to go on insisting that they never fell into temptation, but only tempted themselves. (The empire of Hell isn't bothered about gaining its citizens' assent.)

And, leaving aside theology, aren't we social beings ... even Manfred? We don't operate in a vacuum. Surely it's egotistical to say that what he did with Astarte was all down to his own unshared moral agency? Accepting responsibility is good, but not if it denies other people their moral agency, too. 

I don't say that the Abbot expresses these responses, nor even that Byron himself ever reckoned with them. But Manfred allows us to think them, as a good play should. 


Manfred is probably most known today for the music of Schumann and Tchaikovsky. 

The student Robert Schumann noted in his diary for 26 March 1829: "Bedtime reading: Byron's Manfred. A terrible night!"

By 1829 Manfred had already been translated into German four times; in Europe it was Byron's most celebrated work, as Peter Cochran says. (Being mostly in blank verse it was a lot more translatable than Childe Harold or Don Juan.)

Another German translation, by Karl Adolf Suckow, appeared in 1839. Suckow always had in mind a musical setting and in his introduction invited Felix Mendelssohn to take up the challenge, but it never happened and we don't know if Mendelssohn ever saw Suckow's book.

Anyway, Robert Schumann's Manfred: Dramatisches Gedicht in drei Abtheilungen (mainly composed in 1848) was "a dramatic poem with music" based on Suckow's translation, which Clara's mother had brought home. Liszt conducted the premier of the full work at Weimar in 1852. Schumann couldn't attend; he was seeing too many hallucinations by then. The dark, keening overture was much admired and is still frequently performed, but not so often the full work. Schumann designed it as a performance of the whole play (a somewhat cut-down version of Suckow), with fifteen musical episodes. He evidently planned for Manfred and the other human characters to be played by actors, not singers. In his musical settings it's only the spirits who sing; the human characters declaim (a form technically known as Melodramatisch).

Full libretto: https://www.flaminioonline.it/Guide/Schumann/Schumann-Manfred-testo.html . (But the text marks No 14 in the wrong place. The full score is on IMSLP.)

Here's a 2017 performance by the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest with the Groot Omroepkoor -- both Dutch ensembles. (The conductor, actors and soloists aren't credited; the Dutch commentator names them at the end, but too quickly for me to catch.) This performance contains all of Schumann's music. However it doesn't contain the whole text as given in the libretto; for instance, the characters of the Chamois Hunter and Manuel are dropped. Perhaps it makes use of the shorter connecting scenes that were prepared by Richard Pohl (1826 - 1896) to make concert performances more practicable.

Here's a list of the fifteen musical episodes, with their equivalent locations in Byron's poem.


Act I 

1. Gesang der Geister. Für Sopran, Alt, Tenor und Bass. "Dein Gebot zieht mich heraus" ("Mortal! to thy bidding bowed"). The speeches of the first four spirits (Act I Scene 1).

2. Ercheinung eines Zauberbildes. Melodramatisch. "O Gott, ist’s so, wenn du nicht Wahnbild" ("O God, if it be thus, and thou / Art not a madness and a mockery"). This is Manfred's exclamation when the seventh spirit appears in the form of a beautiful woman -- Act I Scene 1.

3. Geisterbannfluch. Für 4 Basstimmen. "Wenn der Mond auf stiller Welle" ("When the moon is on the wave"). The spirits' incantation, cursing Manfred (Act I Scene 1).

4. Alpenkuhreigen. Melodramatisch. "Horch, der Ton!" ("Hark! The note"). Manfred on the Jungfrau hears a shepherd's pipe (Act I Scene 2).

Act II

5. Zwischenaktmusik.

6. Rufung der Alpenfee. Melodramatisch. "Du schöner Geist mit deinem Haar" ("Beautiful spirit! With thy hair"). Manfred addressing the Witch of the Alps (Act II Scene 2).

7. Hymnus der Geister Ariman’s. Für Chor. "Heil unsrem Meister!" ("Hail to our Master!"). The hymn of the spirits to Arimanes  (Act II Scene 4).

8. Chorsatz. "Wirf in den Staub dich" ("Prostrate thyself"). The spirits addressing the intruder Manfred (Act II Scene 4).

9. Chorsatz. "Zermalmt den Wurm" ("Crush the worm!"). Their reaction when he refuses to bow to Arimanes (Act II Scene 4).

10. Geschwörung der Astarte. Melodramatisch. "Schatten! Geist! Was immer du seist" ("Shadow! or Spirit! Whatever thou art"). Invoking Astarte: Nemesis in the original, the Erste Parze here (Act II Scene 4).

11. Manfred’s Ansprache an Astarte. Melodramatisch. "O höre, hör’ mich. Astarte!" ("Hear me, hear me— Astarte!"). Manfred addressing Astarte (Act II Scene 4).


12. Melodramatisch. "Ein Friede kam auf mich" ("There is a calm upon me—"). Manfred's soliloquy (Act III Scene 1).

13. Abschied von der Sonne. Melodramatisch. "Glorreiche Scheibe" ("Glorious Orb!"). Manfred at the window, saying his farewell to the sun (Act III Scene 2).

14. Melodramatisch. "Blick’ nur hierher" ("Look there, I say"). Manfred and the Abbot, when the Spirit appears (Act III Scene 4).

15. Schluss-Scene. Klostergesang. Für Chor. "Requiem aeternam dona eis". A distant choir of monks -- Schumann's own idea -- is heard as Manfred dies (Act III Scene 4).

(I wonder how much you'd have to adapt Byron's original words to retrofit them to Schumann's settings? Happy to help!)


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Manfred: Symphonie  en quatre tableaux, d'après le poème dramatique de Byron (1885). 

Tchaikovsky's longest symphony, composed between the 4th and 5th symphonies and just as ferocious as they are, but comparatively rarely performed. 

The first movement depicts Manfred's alpine wanderings and his guilt-ridden quest for oblivion.

The lovely second movement scherzo depicts the Witch of the Alps in her vaporous waterfall.

The third movement andante depicts the simple life of mountain folk (like the piping shepherd and the Chamois Hunter).

The finale depicts Manfred's visit to the infernal hall of Arimanes, Astarte's pardon (i.e. according to Tchaikovsky, or maybe Stasov) and Manfred's death.

This is a performance from 1986 by the Oslo Philharmonic conducted by Mariss Jansons. 


Another post by me, on The Corsair:


Byron the swimmer

Chris Murray, "Byron, Sport and the Classics" [PDF]:

Guy Howie on Byron's sporting and swimming feats:

I hugely enjoyed this post by "Richard" about Byron swimming the Hellespont, and I think you will too:

Merrell Noden, "Lord of the Waterways", article in Sports Illustrated including more about the Venice swims. 

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Friday, June 14, 2024

Love in a mist

Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena). Frome, 11 June 2024.

Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena). A seed mix (maybe 'Persian Jewels') introduced in Laura's garden twenty years ago and constantly generating new variants. I don't know why the population never settles down. I don't understand genetics, so am prone to the unworthy thought that no-one else does either. 

My favourite this year is the spectacular one shown above, growing (rather appropriately) beside the grass called Yorkshire Fog.

Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena). Frome, 11 June 2024.

The coloured parts are actually the sepals. On a very doubled individual like this the tiny petals seem to be completely absent. 

One thing I hadn't appreciated before is how much the sepal-colours change. The pic below shows the same flower four days later.

Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena). Frome, 15 June 2024.

Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena). Frome, 11 June 2024.

In Sweden it's called Jungfrun i det gröna (the maiden in the green). 

Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena). Frome, 11 June 2024.

The spice known as nigella or black cumin comes from the related species Nigella sativa

Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena). Frome, 11 June 2024.

Here's one that resembles the wild plant of southern Europe.  It has just five pale blue sepals. The petals are the ring of small hooked structures surrounding the stamens.

Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena). Frome, 15 June 2024.

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