Monday, September 20, 2021

long looping strands

Favourite lines? Well yes, those are easy to find.


snouts succulent,
these sisters lie outspread, five cordial orchids
against mother's blushing pungent bulk,

("Killiow Pigs")

Michelangelo's clouds:

As old as these nesting clouds
that water-lily the void together,

("God Dividing Light from Darkness")

Something the thief steals:

... the joy that bends you easily and makes you feel safe,


He dreams the fragmental stealth of my spirit.
He dreams my future, he dreams my past.
He dreams the breath of this bare room,
the chimney's old ache of blackened brick,
the ceiling a caul of faded paint,
the walls objecting to windows on principle,
doors opening and closing on an ardent future,
causing horror, fear, delight,
and all these dreams move in me like sex,
with little or no punishment or revenge.

("Draco, the Dreaming Snake")

Kneading clay:

He lifts the clay in both hands
and thuds it down on the wooden benchtop,
... then pressing the weight of his spread hands
down on it; the air must be forced out.
He grabs the clay up, throws it down,
beats it with his fists again. He punches
and pummels it, groaning and urging himself on;
it must be done;
this is not the gentle time.

With a wire he splices the clay in two, like cheese;
examines it for air bubbles.
Walloping the two halves together with a clap of laughter,
he wedges the clay, pushing the softest clay out
in convexing folds ....



No more books, I told myself, conscious that I'd already exceeded the forty cubic inches allotted for books in the van. But then I noticed Penelope Shuttle's Adventures with my Horse in a Frome charity shop (it was in the farming section) and I couldn’t resist revisiting it after thirty years.

This was her fourth poetry collection, published in 1988. (Her latest, Lyonesse, came out in June 2021; I'm eager to read it.)

I've probably mentioned before that Frome has a tenuous Penelope Shuttle connection. It was here, at the George Hotel, that she arranged to meet up with an intrigued Peter Redgrove (in about 1969, I think). They'd briefly crossed paths a year before, at an arts meeting near St Ives. But this was the real beginning of the marriage that would transform their work.

Peter Redgrove and Penelope Shuttle: How we met (Independent, 15 August 1992)


But the poem that especially struck me this time was one I neglected first time around. I find I can't omit any of the lines. 

Lovers in a Picture

On a bed like an intimate stage
the lovers embrace between red curtains
caught on five gold rings;
the soles of her feet
and the tips of her toes
are scarlet as some phoenix
her red fingertips have held;
across her face turned from him
is the faintest veil;
otherwise she is like him
naked to the waist,
then swirled in big clinging pants
of crimson silk;
his face as smooth and passionate
a profile as she
on their red-curtained Indian couch,
like sonneteers on a rose-patterned mattress;
the two pearls hung in his pierced ear
quiver and her long looping strands
of pearls that fall from neck to waist
and meet behind her back in a shining halter
shiver with a similar suspense;
familiar to us, his leaning towards her,
his concentration and hope;
familiar to us, her mouth,
her small round kind breast;
familiar to us, her knees he kneels between,
familiar to us, his heart-beat, her breath;
they wait in stillness
for us to see how their watchful ease
between the curtains,
their preliminaries and his hand
beneath her elbow
mirror the only way of solving
the redness of those curtains,
the treasure of pearls,
of feeling the air lifted up
on its golden rings
and rocking us;

familiar to us, these lovers
at their work of guidance and love;

and night's kohl drawn across our own eyelids.

At the end of this gently unspooling sentence the curtains are drawn across. 

In the animized world of this poetry, the pictured lovers are as alive as the lovers who are viewing the picture. Sex always has an audience, because everything around us is alive (and not to mention the lovers themselves); this bepearled pair of lovers have dressed for the occasion. But nakedness is the essence. The argument of the poem is its movement from "similar" to "familiar"; what is more similar than his smooth and passionate skin to hers? Your knee, my knee; your kneeling, my kneeling. So that, by the end, it's the viewers who are involved in the curtains, in the concentration of "solving" and feeling the air lifted up. In their own act of sex, or in sympathetic identification, or in artistic contemplation, or in artistic creation, of a poem for instance? In this poem all the activities form a continuum that we might simply call being alive. 

Penelope Shuttle has said that the form of her poems is driven by breath, and that's especially apparent here, where the flow of the poem's breathing is contained into an expectation, into hope, into "watchful ease".


Monday, September 13, 2021

What neat repast

The "pretty garden-house" in Petty France where Milton lived from 1652 to 1660.

[Source: Wikipedia. Engraving from 1848. The house was demolished in 1877. Later residents included Mill, Bentham and Hazlitt. By this time it was 19 York Street; the name Petty France was restored in 1925. When the Commonwealth collapsed in 1660 Milton went into hiding at a friend's house in Bartholomew Close, Farringdon.]

Lawrence of vertuous Father vertuous Son,
    Now that the Fields are dank, and ways are mire,
    Where shall we sometimes meet, and by the fire
    Help wast a sullen day ; what may be won
From the hard Season gaining : time will run
    On smoother, till Favonius re-inspire
    The frozen earth ; and cloth in fresh attire
    The Lillie and Rose, that neither sow'd nor spun.
What neat repast shall feast us, light and choice,
    Of Attick tast, with Wine, whence we may rise
    To hear the Lute well toucht, or artfull voice
Warble immortal Notes and Tuskan Ayre ?
    He who of those delights can judge, and spare
    To interpose them oft, is not unwise.

This is one of the sonnets Milton wrote while living in Petty France, Westminster. He was now totally blind, and depended on younger friends like Edward Lawrence to go on walks with him. Maybe it was written in 1654 (when Milton was 46), at the same time as "Cyriack, whose grandsire", with which it seems to form a pair; both poems are about judiciously partaking in leisure activities.

There's no agreed standard for numbering Milton's sonnets, but this is Sonnet 20 according to the most widely promulgated scheme.

"Favonius" is the Latin name for Zephyrus, the west wind. It's always associated with the coming of spring and flowers, as in the opening of Horace's Ode III.7.

Milton's sonnet is about passing the winter season. It's a restrained Horatian invitation poem. Puritan feasting doesn't sound too bad to me, if it involves wine and lute songs.

I can't accept that there's any ambiguity about "spare to interpose them oft", it can only mean "refrain from indulging in them often". But I readily accept that there's an ambiguous feeling about leisure within the poem. Why end with the super-cautious "not unwise" instead of, say, "very wise"? Why say "Help waste" instead of e.g. "Enjoy"? 

What's the implication here of those biblical idlers the flowers of the field? 

22 And he said unto his disciples, Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat; neither for the body, what ye shall put on. 23 The life is more than meat, and the body is more than raiment. 24 Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap; which neither have storehouse nor barn; and God feedeth them: how much more are ye better than the fowls? 25 And which of you with taking thought can add to his stature one cubit? 26 If ye then be not able to do that thing which is least, why take ye thought for the rest? 27 Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 28 If then God so clothe the grass, which is to day in the field, and to morrow is cast into the oven; how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith? 29 And seek not ye what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, neither be ye of doubtful mind. 30 For all these things do the nations of the world seek after: and your Father knoweth that ye have need of these things. 31 But rather seek ye the kingdom of God; and all these things shall be added unto you. 32 Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

(Luke 12:22-32, cf. Matthew 6:25-34)

It's the ravens, not the lilies, who do not sow. 

But lilies or ravens, it might seem odd to mention them. Milton, a hard-working and well-paid servant of government, does not seemingly have much in common with these faithful creatures. But maybe he saw himself as halfway between working for a nation of the world (verse 30) and working for the kingdom of God (verse 31). His stupendous labours for the former were winding down a little, because of his blindness. The time was approaching when he could attend once more to his high-pitched poetic ambitions. In 1655 his salary was commuted to a life pension. (It's uncertain whether, by 1654, he had already begun to write bits of Paradise Lost.)

The twin topics of work and leisure had always preoccupied him; as far back as L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, or the sonnet on his 24th birthday. Milton was constantly telling himself that he needed to work bloody hard, and then having to tell himself that it was fine to relax and not feel bad about it. He's a case history for the Protestant work ethic, for over-active adrenals. In the sonnet on his blindness his body urges him to "post o'er land and ocean without rest" and, instead, he has to accept that "They also serve who only stand and wait". It's all about pacing yourself.

There's a haziness about the Lawrence sonnet, in particular lines 3-6. I do not know how you could sensibly reply to so vague a question as "Where shall we sometimes meet?".... Is it in fact a question? I haven't yet been able to find any attempts at paraphrasing these lines. Surely line 4 alludes to the medieval pairing of Winner and Waster, or is that just a distraction? Anyway, it seems very characteristic of Milton's adrenals that even in the enforced relaxation of winter he should be thinking about "what may be won".

What neat repast shall feast us, light and choice, 
Of Attick tast.... 

Milton's play with the -st ending (momentarily splitting into its constituent sounds, in "light and choice"), is very beautiful. Maybe what's being created here is a kind of nourishment that can't be measured in calories: the deep nourishment given by poetry, or the spiritual provision that God gives to his faithful disciples.


Saturday, September 04, 2021

always asking

Lawson Cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana)

What meaningless summer

Headlights on metal railings



It's a contradiction, the trunk you embrace

Here I have lived, here I'll die

What do you feel now, in the trunk you're shaking?



Writing this poem, means
letting the others flit, 
the six I thought of just now while taking a shower,
the thousands before them. 

The more honest ones; they would have said openly
what this one skirts round, fills the gap with indifferent topics. 


I was always good at exams, but in our life I've failed from the start. 

Your face in your hands, three days ago. Reaching for a smoke. 

I was always asking you for marks. In the mean time, I marked myself. 
I marked you too. 

So I failed, though it wasn't even an exam. I managed to fail. 


You go down, just under the soil surface,

dig up the brass helmet wet with mould

and peel away the wrappings. I'm looking over your shoulder

at the bright brawn, the head-cheese

It must be the savings you stole from your mum

It must be the guineas sweated by your dad

You catch my eye, and I catch yours.

We'd like to throw them back but we can't.


The falling leaves 


that it's OK to leave

and hence the name


Yes I knew about the dirty secrets of the food industry

Fishing mining and pension funds

I wasn't naïve about aviation

Politicians are hardly perfect

And the innocence of the office, the myopia that bore us in its arms

The distraction of events, the daily fisticuffs that amused and infuriated and concealed

But still I supposed

I was never strong on logic

And then the belief gently disengaged itself

Like a lover saying goodbye when words can't say it any more

A young Lawson Cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana)

Lawson Cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana), when it's a big tree like the one at the head of this post, is a rather magical one. 

This extraordinary species is native to a rather restricted area of Oregon and N. California, where it grows very tall and forms dense woods. 

It has proved capable of being bred in hundreds of cultivars of different shapes, colours and sizes, mostly shrub-like and much smaller than the standard native form. The commonplace "evergreens" sold in garden centres are almost all varieties of Lawson Cypress.

Personally I find a lot of them fairly uninteresting plants, mere utilitarian shapes and screens, but this doesn't  stop the birds appreciating them. 

Some varieties are much more striking, for instance "Little Spire", with fascinating foliage, a narrow columnar form, splendid bark and a dramatic abundance of red flowers in April. This variety needs a sunny location; it would be great as the focal point of a rockery. 

Chamaecyparis lawsoniana "Little Spire". Battle, 7 September 2021.


Chamaecyparis lawsoniana "Little Spire". Battle, 7 September 2021.

Chamaecyparis lawsoniana "Little Spire". Battle, 7 September 2021.

Part of the appeal of Lawson Cypress as a basis for garden evergreens is that it's so hardy, unfussy and trouble-free.

However, wild populations are now threatened by the introduced oomycete Phytophthora lateralis, which can kill the trees. It's increasingly being detected in other countries too.

(An oomycete is a kind of microorganism. They were formerly classed as fungi but differ from true fungi in various respects.)

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Wednesday, September 01, 2021

On cash


I snatched up this battered note from the pavement outside a bookies in Trowbridge. For a split second I thought it might bankroll our outing, but of course it's a fake. All the fancy scintillations are missing, also the raised surfaces (e.g. dot patterns for the visually impaired). There are no microprinted lines of TWENTY20TWENTY20, which you can see with a magnifying glass in the dark areas of an authentic note. The RBS logo in the Spark Orbital image doesn't change colour, and isn't even print-aligned on the two sides. 

Still, we don't see many Scottish banknotes in the South West, so I enjoyed taking a look. This design was issued in 2020. The front celebrates Catherine "Kate" Cranston (1849 - 1934), creator of Glasgow tea-rooms at the end of the nineteenth century. Originally it was a temperance idea. Cranston's tearooms were elegant spaces. The most famous, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and recently restored, are the Willow Tea-rooms in Sauchiehall Street. A kind of ancestor of the provincial chain cafe where, 120 years later, we're now nursing our green tea and hoovering up the last crumbs of lemon drizzle. 

In Cranston's tea-rooms you didn't have to trouble the waitress. You took whatever you wanted from a nearby basket of cakes, and when you left you told the cashier what you'd had.

Kate Cranston withdrew from the business in 1917, distraught at the death of her husband, but the tearooms retained their proverbial reputation (appearing, for instance, in W. H. Auden's "Night Mail" of 1936).

The back of the note, amid a potpourri of red squirrels and blaeberries, quotes the first two lines of the sonnet Cupid and Venus, the only known Scots poem by Mark Alexander Boyd (1563 - 1601). (He also wrote poems in Latin and Greek. He was a Protestant soldier of fortune in the pay of the Catholic Henri III.)


Fra bank to bank, fra wood to wood I rin,
Ourhailit with my feeble fantasie;
Like til a leaf that fallis from a tree,
Or till a reed ourblawin with the win.
Twa gods guides me: the ane of them is blin,
Yea and a bairn brocht up in vanitie;
The next a wife ingenrit of the sea,
And lichter nor a dauphin with her fin.
Unhappy is the man for evermair
That tills the sand and sawis in the air;
But twice unhappier is he, I lairn,
That feidis in his hairt a mad desire,
And follows on a woman throw the fire,
Led by a blind and teachit by a bairn.

(The designers must have been aware of the sly appropriateness of the opening words.)

Like a lot of people these days, I make very little use of cash. My teas and cakes are all paid for on card, a flash of contactless. Or maybe you use your phone. As often as not, the street musician and the beggar miss out, I just don't have anything on me.

As a matter of fact, our favourite cafe chain stopped accepting cash payments during lockdown and they seem in no hurry to resume them.

Björn Ulvaeus, the ex-Abba man, was a strong early proponent of the cashless society. He thought it would rid us of crime at a stroke. I'm sorry to disagree with him so absolutely.

Because, not only for the street musicians' sake, I feel very concerned about cash being phased out. Cash is the only means by which, to a limited extent, we can give money to someone else without it being recorded as a transaction, that is, as data. That is, as something we voluntarily open to other parties' control and misuse; for, surely, to suppose that any digitized data is "confidential" or "private" is as naïve as Björn's belief that criminality today is primarily about rolls of crumpled notes. Though this fake note would, of course, bolster his case.

I haven't yet remembered about it on the day, but I really do intend to take part in "Cash Friday", the proposal that every Friday we make all our day-to-day transactions in cash. I might even have to miss out, one day a week, on that cafe chain. 


Monday, August 30, 2021

What can you talk about flatfish?

Milk churns stand at Coronation Corner like short, silver policemen.

It's lunchtime in Llareggub.

In the blind-drawn dark dining-room of School House, dusty and echoing as a dining room in a vault, Mr and Mrs Pugh are silent over cold grey cottage pie. Mr Pugh reads, as he forks the shroud meat in, from 'Lives of the Great Poisoners'. He has bound a plain brown-paper cover round the book. Slyly, between slow mouthfuls, he sidespies up at Mrs Pugh, poisons her with his eye, then goes on reading. He underlines certain passages and smiles in secret.

Persons with manners do not read at table,

says Mrs Pugh. She swallows a digestive tablet as big as a horse-pill, washing it down with clouded peasoup water.


Some persons were brought up in pigsties.

Pigs don't read at table, dear.

Bitterly she flicks dust from the broken cruet. It settles on the pie in a thin gnat-rain.

Pigs can't read, my dear.

I know one who can.

Fawlty Towers comes irresistibly to mind, though there's a bit of Dubliners in there too. 

Mr Pugh is schoolmaster. We don't witness him at his work, though we do see his fellow teacher Gossamer Beynon the butcher's daughter, teaching the children to sing Shakespeare. To Sinbad Sailors' dismay, Gossamer Beynon is educated and is thus (he thinks) unreachably out of his sphere. If only his sprightly grandmother would die! 

Love and death are comically intertwined in Under Milk Wood. Only once, for a moment, does the comedy of that intertwining suddenly fade away, while Captain Cat naps in the afternoon and reminisces.

I'll tell you no lies.
The only sea I saw
Was the seesaw sea
With you riding on it.
Lie down, lie easy.
Let me shipwreck in your thighs.

Knock twice, Jack,
At the door of my grave
And ask for Rosie.

Rosie Probert.

Remember her.
She is forgetting.
The earth which filled her mouth
Is vanishing from her.
Remember me.
I have forgotten you.
I am going into the darkness of the darkness for ever.
I have forgotten that I was ever born. 


says a child to her mother as they pass by the window of Schooner House,

Captain Cat is crying. 

Houses and streets are named, people are named and their line of work is named. Yet the play unmistakably occupies the world of pub anecdote, from which the actual business of working is excluded. The unbuttoned energies of the play, the unbridled loving and drinking and babies, contrast with a precise observation of the forms of popular discourse, as fierce in rules of decorum as any genteel dinner party.

So the play adroitly sidesteps the town's fishing industry with a joke about the fishermen proclaiming today's perfectly calm sea "too rough" and all heading in a body for the Sailors' Arms. It's the only glimpse we have of them.

And in the night: 

At the sea-end of town, Mr and Mrs Floyd, the cocklers, are sleeping as quiet as death, side by wrinkled side, toothless, salt, and brown, like two old kippers in a box.

Presumably exhausted. Raking for cockles is notoriously hard work. 

At one time in the play's gestation Dylan Thomas intended to say more of the Floyds. On his map of Llareggub (in the National Library of Wales) there's a scrap of an idea:

Me, Curly Floyd, the cockler, 
going after cockles with m

Also on the map, though crossed through, is "Sarah". In the play Mrs Dai Bread One addresses a Mrs Sarah, asking after her boils. Even these shadowy, evanescent figures had backstories in Thomas's imagination.

But he had a sure instinct. Under Milk Wood in the end said all it needed to say. Like most of his other major works it had been in the back of his mind since his teens.

I don't know when he drew the map. It's fascinating. Here are the main streets: Coronation Street, Cockle Street, Donkey Street;  and here are most of the main characters, beginning top left with "la-di-da" Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard overlooking the town in Bay View. 

On the map, Cockle Street and Donkey Street are side by side, both running down to the sea. 

The cockle industry has largely existed in Wales in the same way since the 1800s. Cockles were originally collected by women using donkeys, but they were displaced by men who left heavy industry and used horse and cart.

And yet, there's a host of differences and additions when we compare the finished text with the map. Cockle Street becomes Cockle Row (mostly). New names abound: Manchester House, Schooner House, Coronation Corner. Cherry Jones becomes Cherry Owen and moves to Donkey Street; Thomas the Death becomes Evans the Death, and Mr Waldo's "pink-eyed cottage" (Bottom Cottage) is now next door to him. 

And where, on the map, is Eli Jenkins' Bethesda House, and the Bethesda graveyard? The River Dewi? Most significantly of all, where is Milk Wood itself? 

And maybe "Shad", at the sea end of Cockle Street, was an idea for a named fisherman that in the event Thomas didn't pursue. In the finished play the only person seen on the water is Nogood Boyo, who catches anything but fish.

Yet the play is fishy enough. A drunk Cherry Owen comes home with a bucket, 

and then over the bucket you went, sprawling and bawling, and the floor was all flagons and eels.

Captain Cat breakfasts on sea fry, Mr Waldo on kippers, Lord Cut-Glass on fish scraps. At lunchtime Mrs Organ Morgan feasts on small flounders. 

Flounders are found in the sand and mud of every river estuary around the Welsh coast.

(From the Wales Online article linked above.)

But the play turns away from talking about the work itself, like any pub conversation. As Captain Cat remarks:

Who's that talking by the pump? Mrs Floyd and Boyo, talking flatfish. What can you talk about flatfish? 

(Mrs Boyo? Nogood's mother?)

Work isn't altogether absent from Under Milk Wood, of course. There's Utah Watkins and Bessie Bighead among the cows at Salt Lake Farm. There's the "treasure" Lily Smalls making morning tea for the querulous Mrs Beynon, and Dai Bread hurrying to the bakery, and Polly Garter scrubbing the floors for the Mothers' Union Social Dance that she won't be going to. In the background work is taking place everywhere: The fishermen grumble to their nets... A car drives to the market... The shops squeak open.... Bread is baking, chop goes the butcher, saws sing.... But still, there's also a shyness about mentioning work which manifests as a vacuum when it comes to Llareggub's economy. In addition to the stay-ashore fishermen, there's Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard's resistance to actually admitting any paying guests into her spotless BnB. The Cherry Owens, in their single room, have no apparent source of  income. Butcher Beynon is incessantly teasing about the source of his meats. Even those chaste capitalists Mog Edwards and Myfanwy Price seem to achieve only the most pitiful sales.

The town is sustained by a kind of magic, because Thomas recognized the pull of popular anecdote towards the fantastic, towards visions that celebrate the power of storytelling just because they aren't drawn from the everyday. For instance the Willy Nillys and their hens living entirely off tea, or the primrose blooming in Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard's fingerbowl.

Which I suppose is to belabour the point that Under Milk Wood isn't entirely realistic. It's a portrait constructed from sunnily comic sketches. While writing it Thomas jotted down several darker elements he thought he ought to include; but he never did.

And as in sketches, the characters tend to embody a single trait or situation. But their eccentric individuality is measured against a background of reassuringly traditional gender stereotypes: women as nags or gossips, men as boozers or idlers. There is no gay in this village (though I had a passing thought here about the Reverend Eli Jenkins).  

But in another way Under Milk Wood feels very real. It feels like the way a small community would talk about itself, using the popular forms of anecdote, gossip, children's games and jeering, ballads and fortune-telling and timeworn jests. And in fact there's a precious truth here; that what most deeply sustains us isn't only work but a magic beyond our remit, begetting an idleness that's also an act of faith.

Fishermen grumble to their nets. Nogood Boyo goes out in the dinghy Zanzibar, ships the oars, drifts slowly in the dab-filled bay, and, lying on his back in the unbaled water, among crabs' legs and tangled lines, looks up at the spring sky.

NOGOOD BOYO [Softly, lazily]
I don't know who's up there and I don't care.

He turns his head and looks up at Llareggub Hill, and sees, among green lathered trees, the white houses of the strewn away farms, where farmboys whistle, dogs shout, cows low, but all too far away for him, or you, to hear.

The contrast between the play's inward chorus and the stuffy Voice Of A Guide-Book is perfectly poised, and it arouses no protest in us. Though his unmistakable style pervades the narration, Thomas contrived to absent himself, the educated outsider, entirely. Here, as in so much else, his long creative labour was about discovering what not to say. 


Tuesday, August 24, 2021

In cathode dark space


Dossier #1

It’s the year of less-than-half the true extent of time.

There is water on the moon

And on Gliese exostar 1214b.

Its constellation is all wound up.

Its struggle will last forever.

There’s even an emoji for it, a U

With a tilde, a sling dash: U̴

An oviform filled by an approximate, to mean:

∼ is now called ______ etc.

So what is your I.D.?

Just a grapheme?

This is the first part of Four Dossiers, a poem by Jane Lewty (from Leeds, now in Baltimore), which appeared in Heavy Feather Review in July 2019

So yes, apparently there is water on the moon, though not much. Maybe there's frozen water in the permanent shade of deep craters. 

Gliese 1214b is an exoplanet (a planet that's outside our own solar system). It was discovered in 2009. According to Wikipedia it's considered the most likely of currently-known exoplanets to be ocean-based.

I suppose Gliese 1214b falls into the "hycean" class of large exoplanets discussed in today's Guardian:

Its star, the red dwarf Gliese 1214, is a mere 42 light years away from us. 

Gliese 1214 is in the constellation Ophiuchus, which is imagined as the figure of a man struggling with a serpent (Serpens Caput, Serpens Cauda).  ("Its struggle will last forever"). 

The symbol for Ophiuchus is   (a U with a wiggly line across it); the symbol represents a man grasping a snake. 

All about Ophiuchus, from Ian Ridpath's brilliant site:

Ophiuchus brushes the ecliptic, between Scorpius and Sagittarius, so it's sometimes described as the thirteenth sign of the zodiac, and a few astrologers have gone with this idea (though arguably it confuses constellations with solar houses).  

Character of Ophiuchus People

Since Ophiuchus is a constellation consisting of two (Ophiuchus and Serpens), people under this sign have an entangled character, just like the war between Ophiuchus and Serpens: sometimes they are rational and sometimes sensitive; sometimes philanthropic and sometimes indifferent. That's why they often wonder whether they are like Scorpian or Sagittarian. No matter what they are like, however, they cannot deny the trait of the other half.

Four Dossiers is an alternative version of the poem Case Study #8: Symmetrical Sympathy Pain, which appears in Jane Lewty's formidable 2016 collection In One Form To Find Another. I won't speculate which version was written first. There are significant differences between the two versions, but here I'll mainly follow Four Dossiers because you can read it online. 

Dossier #2

Immune to all type of poison

Inscrutable as any myth.

Eg. Big literature

Eg. Ptolemy’s Almagest, for

The recipient

In cathode dark space

Upper so on page because decoder left

Out so willfully.

In my next email

Let me send you another quote that may be of use

About your star sign.

Ophiuchus was one of the 48 constellations listed in Claudius Ptolemy's Almagest (c. 150 CE). I've tried to find a complete online text of Almagest Books VII-VIII (the star catalogue), but failed.

List of Ptolemy's 48 constellations:

Here's Almagest Book 1:

This is the basis for the influential geocentric view of the heavens. Ptolemy knew the earth was spherical, and he could see, as others could, that most of the movements of the heavens could easily be explained by the earth rotating. And since he also knew the earth is only a point in comparison to the size of the heavens, wasn't that, like, the obvious conclusion? But he couldn't understand how the earth could be moving. He was that close. He even came close enough to accept that maybe the atmosphere might be moving along with the earth, which would explain why we don't feel a constant rushing wind. Yet he apparently still couldn't understand how someone jumping on such a rapidly moving surface wouldn't get left behind. (He might have tried jumping while on a ship or chariot.) 

It was because Ptolemy's book was such impressive science that it cemented a radically false view of the heavens as the orthodoxy of the next 1400 years. 

Science is truly our friend, isn't it? 

On the other hand, though Martianus Capella's chaotic De nuptiis (5th century CE) was popular and influential, the author's astronomical fantasies were not allowed to have any authority. Probably they were described as "baseless". Martianus was ignored when he said that while everything else went round the earth, Venus and Mercury went round the sun. 

Venus uero ac Mercurius non ambiunt terram  (Book VIII, 854)

Evidently there were people, way back then, who had reflected intelligently on the striking differences between the inner planets and the outer planets; e.g. that the inner planets seem to be attached by dog's leads to the sun, and never show up in the anti-solar region. 

"Let me send you another quote that may be of use"

In the note to this poem (In One Form To Find Another), Jane Lewty quotes: "You are markedly introspective at this time, perhaps isolating yourself from worldly activities and acquaintances in some manner. Health issues, generally of a psychosomatic nature, may come to the fore". 

"Symmetrical sympathy pain" may refer to e.g. pain in the hand that isn't affected by carpal tunnel syndrome. Or the pregnancy pains of expectant fathers. 

As a whole, In One Form To Find Another terrifyingly inhabits experiences that may not match reality. What is reality, after all? 

Dossier #3

A screen corresponds to what its user expects of it.

Numbly wan, only a page

Or utterly sharp and scriptural.

This year, the World Digital Library shows

An illustration of what it means

To be immured.

The World Digital Library is an unfolding project, the collaboration of UNESCO and the US Library of Congress. Responsibility for the S in UNESCO ("Scientific") lies with Joseph Needham, later the creator/author of Science and Civilisation in China

But to be immured is to be invisible. To be one who is known but not illustrated. 

Dossier #4

Dear grapheme,

I know you have too much to read

You’re up against the impossible

As much we ever will be.

The Ptolemy dynasty stacked papyrus to the hilt of Alexandria, and sent forgeries back
to those they borrowed from. Copies bred more copies, script as information, process 
as memory. What lines remained the same, which altered? Which discarded?

You have your own library—you write me—same name as a butterfly. You jog past it.
Every day. You want to age like the hairdresser’s husband.
Last night you were rained on.

You passed by a window, where women smoked, inside and beautiful.

You walked home, again, you wrote me everything.

I dreamt of every letter’s death but I couldn’t delete.

"Ptolemy" is a common Greek name. Claudius Ptolemy has no known relationship to the Ptolemy Dynasty (305 - 30 BCE), named for one of Alexander's generals. 

It was this dynasty, Ptolemy I or II, who founded the library in Alexandria.

Well, that was another "world library".

Claudius Ptolemy did come from around Alexandria and he doubtless used the library, in whatever form it still existed. (The story that it was destroyed by fire in Julius Caesar's time seems to be a romantic simplification.)

Galen tells us that the library impounded any original texts found on ships visiting the port of Alexandria, returning scribal copies in their stead. And it did the same thing with the works of the Greek tragedians, loaned from Athens. (Lewty's use of the term "forgeries" rather than "copies" is arresting.) 

Jane Lewty's poem poses the idea of a library not as a benevolent tool for scholars but as an act of aggression: an impounding, a possession, maybe a falsification inherent in the very act of amassing data. 

The creation of an addiction ("I couldn't delete").  A distraction. An impossible task ("You're up against the impossible") that is separate from and perhaps antagonistic to the living of our lives, which contain so many possibles and impossibles already. 

Or is a library, maybe, an enormous and potent generator of sympathy between far-flung human beings: that precious and painful and necessary thing?

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Thursday, August 19, 2021

the good ship


H.M.S. Penelope, in Gibraltar for repairs in 1942.

[Image source: .]

I was at the dump last week, shoving crumpled papers into the slit on the side of the paper-recycling skip, when my finger-tips touched the spines of books. Books, real books! I began to fish them out, and in the end I walked away with five: Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood, two poetry collections by Christy Brown, and two books by C.S. Forester, the Hornblower fellow. (Do you remember that book about D.H. Lawrence, Hornblower of the Unconscious? -- maybe I dreamt it.)

Presteign knew himself to be on the verge of a great outburst of poetry; a sequence of sonnets; the falling bomber, the Italian Navy ranged along the horizon, the Italian destroyer bursting into flames to split the night, the German submarine rising tortured to the surface; these were what he was going to write about. Presteign did not know whether ever before naval warfare had been made the subject of a sonnet-cycle, neither did he care. He was sure of himself with the perfect certainty of the artist as the words aligned themselves in his mind. The happiness of creation was upon him as he stood there beside the pompom with the wind flapping his clothes, and the stern wave curling gracefully behind the ship; grey water and white wake and blue sky; and the black smoke screen behind him. The chatter of his friends was faint in his ears as the first of the sonnet-cycle grew ever more and more definite in his mind.

"'Ere we go again," said Nibs.

Artemis was heeling over on the turn as she plunged back into the smoke screen to seek out her enemies once more.



. . . further hits were observed until . . .


The smoke screen was only a little less dense this time; it was holding together marvellously well as that beautiful wind rolled it down upon the Italian line. The ventilating shafts took hold of the smoke and pumped it down into the interior of the ship, driving it along with the air into every compartment where men breathed. Acrid and oily at the same time, it dimmed the lights and it set men coughing and cursing. In 'B' turret, forward of the bridge and only just lower than it, the guns' crews stood by with the smoke eddying round them; their situation was better than that of most, because the ventilation here was speedier and more effective than in any other enclosed part of the ship. The guns were already loaded and they could feel the turret training round. Every man of the guns' crews had a skilled job to do, at some precise moment of the operation of loading and firing, and to keep a six-inch gun firing every ten seconds meant that each man must so concentrate on doing his work that he had no time to think of anything else; after a few minutes of action they would find it hard to say offhand on which side the turret was trained, and unless the loudspeaker or Sub-Lieutenant Home told them they would know nothing about the damage their shots were doing. Their business was to get the guns loaded every ten seconds; the transmitting station would do their calculation for them, the director would point the guns and fire them. But they knew what the return into the smoke screen implied. It was hardly necessary for Sub-Lieutenant Home to tell them quietly:

"We shall be opening fire again in two minutes' time."

(from C.S. Forester's The Ship, Chapters 15-16)

I've found it disturbing to witness the shaping of public opinion over these past two years, the use of propaganda on a scale I'd never seen before (or perhaps had never noticed before). So it was with considerable transferred resentment that I now read The Ship (1943), which is essentially a propaganda novel. 

In the 1930s Forester was making his money in Hollywood, like so many other authors (F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name but one), but when the war started he returned to London to work for the new Ministry of Information. (He was soon sent back across the Atlantic, to assist in persuading the USA to join the Allies.) 

He researched The Ship by spending time aboard H.M.S. Penelope (presumably this was when "H.M.S. Pepperpot" was in New York for repairs), and his novel is informative about life aboard a light cruiser, the workings of the ship and its armaments. It describes a sea battle in the Mediterranean while escorting a vital convoy to Malta. 

Not that Forester was anything but sincere in his passionate devotion to the Royal Navy, to naval warfare and armaments and personal sacrifice. In a sense he never stopped fighting the First World War. In such books as Brown on Resolution (1929) (the other book I hauled out of the skip) and The African Queen (1935) he portrayed men and women who were fanatically dedicated to landing a blow on the enemy. 

The Ship treats the navy and its personnel as heroes, with the intention of maintaining public support and a steady flow of new heroes. Propaganda means defining the model of heroism you want and making sure people perform the acts of heroism you've defined.  

This risks making the story a little dull, because no British sailor hero is allowed to be seen falling short of their duty or making a mistake, and none of the equipment is allowed to be anything other than perfectly made by the factory heroes at home. Death and destruction arrive in the form of Italian shells, but in a deeper sense nothing aboard ever goes wrong. Among the ship's lightly-sketched crew Forester shows us cowards who find their courage when it really matters, and rogues who step up to their duty when it really matters.  Or at least to be honourably blown to bits, like the poet Presteign. 

(A year later, H.M.S. Penelope was sunk by torpedoes, with the loss of two thirds of her 600 men. The recent defence secretary Penny Mordaunt was, as she told us, named after this celebrated ship.)

When, towards the end, the novel switches over briefly to the enemy flagship, things are very different. The German and Italian commanders are portrayed as vacillating, riven by internal jealousy, desperate to duck responsibility for failure, operating in regimes ruled by fear. The contrast with the British side is stark: in fact too stark to be quite credible. Here more than anywhere the propaganda shows through, the implausibilities that are being smuggled in under the cover of narrative realism.  


A fighting machine: that's a favourite metaphor, describing both the ship and the individual sailor. Forester is lyrical about it.  

The Captain sat on the stool which bucked beneath him like a playful horse; the motion was unnoticed by him even though the reflexes developed during years at sea were continually at work keeping him steady in his seat. He was thinking deeply, but on subjects so logical, and with such a comforting ingredient of mathematics, that his expression gave no sign of it. The Mephistophelian eyebrows were their normal distance apart; and although the plan he was to carry out called for the highest degree of resolution, the firm mouth was no more firmly compressed than usual, for the plan was a part of the Captain's life, something he was going to do, not something he wished to do or did not wish to do . . .

(The Ship, Chapter 11)

During the brief while he was taking aim there was time for a myriad thoughts. If he did not press the trigger he would be left unpursued; Ziethen would effect her repairs and clear from Resolution, and he would remain, a free man, to take his chance of being picked up by a passing ship to serve his country again. Once let him fire and kill one of Ziethen's crew, and all the hundreds of German sailors on board would become his sworn enemies, and might hound him down to his death. Death lay on the one hand, and liberty on the other; it was a momentous choice and one over which Brown might have hesitated. He did not hesitate at all; he did not even think about the choice. He had made up his mind last night, and when a man like Brown makes up his mind there is no room left for hesitation. 

(Brown on Resolution, Chapter 13)

Different as are the situations of Captain the Honourable Miles Ernest Troughton-Harrington-Yorke and Leading Seaman Albert Brown, both are distinguished by the ability to make a decision and stick to it. Brown, like the best of fighting machines, becomes an automaton: his decision once made, he no longer thinks about it. The Captain's decision once made becomes what today we'd call non-negotiable ("something he was going to do"), even existential ("a part of the Captain's life").

In these rare instances the men are acting on their own initiative, but they still act in the same way as if under orders. 

More commonly, the sailor's existence is about obeying the orders of others. So though the propagandist makes great play with "heroism", it isn't really heroism that's wanted in a fighting machine -- heroism is too unpredictable. As in any dull office job what's most needed is absolute and instant reliability. 

What attitude of mind is needed? The passage I quoted at the beginning continues to think about the men in 'B' turret:

A devotee of discipline of the old school would have been shocked to see the easy way in which they attended to their duties; a man did not spring to stiff attention when he had completed the operation for which he was responsible. He took himself out of the way of the others and stood poised to spring forward again. There was no need for the outward show of discipline, of the Prussian Guard type, with these men. They understood their business; they had worked those guns in half a dozen victories; they knew what they were fighting for; they were men of independent habit of thought working together with a common aim. They did not have to be broken into unthinking obedience to ensure  that they would do what they were told; thanks to their victories and to the age-long victorious tradition of their service they could be sure that their efforts would be directly aimed towards victory.

It was true as well that every man knew that the better he did his work the better would be his chance of life, that for every Italian he helped to kill in this battle there was one less Italian who might kill him, but that was only a minor, a very minor reason for doing his best. Love of life did not have nearly as much strength as did the love for the service which actuated these men, the love for the ship, and especially the artistic desire to do perfectly the task before them . . .

(The Ship, Chapter 16)

I think there is dishonesty in this passage. For instance, the propagandist is always keen to suggest that an independent habit of thought is a very good quality, and one that's notably evinced by the people he's propagandizing. 

But there's also a true insight here. Hitler and the Nazis were indeed an obscenity to be fought at all costs, and Forester is happy enough to bring forth anti-German and anti-Italian stereotypes when the opportunity arises; but the effectiveness of a fighting service cannot depend on how strongly individual sailors dislike their enemy. The effectiveness must depend on something else, on a prior dedication, on "love for the service" and "love for the ship" and pride in the Navy's record of victory. Victory entails combat: the sailor must long to fight and thrill at every chance of action, no matter the odds. 

In Brown on Resolution Forester had been less guarded about this. He admits of his dying young hero, "Never even had he known liberty; he had been all his life the slave either of a mother's ambition or of a Navy which demands her servitors' all to bestow upon unthinking ingrates" (Chapter 19). To be dedicated to the Navy was not about a patriotism based on any modern Britain that existed ("the babbling mob of civilians" (Chapter 11)), but on the Navy's own traditions, on aspiring to follow in the much-mythologized steps of Drake and Nelson. And at the core of this aspiration was an essential vacuity, something no more to be inspected than the decision already taken or the order from the bridge. The fighting machine must not be a mere human being. 


Sunday, August 08, 2021

Det Går An again

A boat on the Lidan, Lidköping (Västergötland)

[Image source: Wikipedia© Yann Forget / Wikimedia Commons .]

A few years back I recorded my delight at finding an online English translation of Carl Jonas Love Almvist's short novel Det Går An (It Will Do).

In that post I introduced the first chapter or two. Now I've finally got round to reading the whole thing. 

Almqvist's novel was written in 1838 and published around Christmas 1839. The 1919 translation, by Adolph Burnett Benson, is titled Sara Videbeck


The book is in eight chapters. To some extent it's a travelogue. Albert meets Sara on a steamboat just after it leaves Stockholm. The first part covers their journey from Stockholm to Strängnäs to Arboga: the whole width of the mighty Lake Mälaren.  

Then the novel quickly runs over the four days that Albert and Sara spend travelling through the central area of Glanshammar, Örebro, Kumla and "other places further on". In a novel so thick with place-names there's a surprising absence of them when it comes to the long stretch SW of Kumla. Only one overnight stop is named, and I can't find it on the map: Bodarna, where "Sara was not entirely well".  It is apparently somewhere between Vretstorp and Hofva (=Hova). The withdrawal of detail marks the point where our pair become lovers. 

Then we pick up their journey in Mariestad (on the east side of an even larger lake, Vänern) and travel south (by the "prosaic" route of Enebacken) to Sara's home town of Lidköping.

I found this travelogue aspect interesting: the logistics of travelling across central Sweden in the 1830s, the details of ferries and inns and ordering food and hiring vehicles and horses, the question of whether Albert should ask the postboy to drive or take the reins himself. Presumably Almqvist's contemporary audience found this interesting too; perhaps long journeys weren't so very commonplace.

After a time Sara spoke again. "It is terribly dusty! I believe I'll take off my hat."

Although the sergeant, who meanwhile had regained his temper fairly well, did not answer the remark, he asked, nevertheless, "Perhaps you would prefer to sit in the back seat? I notice that the black horse is constantly whipping your shoes with his long, untrimmed tail."

"I have nothing against that; he whisks off the dust."

"Well, all right. Then perhaps you don't care to sit in the back seat?"

"Beside the postboy? Have you not room to drive here in the front seat as it is?"

"Oh, yes, but the postboy could sit here and drive, and we could sit in the back seat; it wouldn't shake you so much, Sara."

"I can't say that it shakes very much. It was worse on the streets of Arboga."

"But if you should take off your hat on account of the dust, as you say, what good would it do? That would not make the dust any less."

"No, but a white cambric hat that is dusty must be washed, and that is a great deal of trouble, for it must be cleaned in the lake itself with a brush. On the other hand, the dust will come off a silk handkerchief by slapping it against your hand a couple of times."

"Well if you wish to change your headgear, I'll stop at once and we'll get out."

"Suppose I should put up the umbrella and hold that against the dust?"

"Dust does not act like rain," interrupted the sergeant,  "which falls only on the top of the umbrella. Dust comes up underneath and, what is more, right around your head; I don't like an umbrella in fair weather."

(from Chapter V)

But Sara and Albert's colloquy, though it's so concrete, looks beyond transportation and geography to the heavens. It thinks about what happens after the couples are united at the end of a conventional novel. Det går an is an eloquent argument for unmarried love, for a woman's independence and property. 

Here's the structure:

Chapter I. The steamer leaves Stockholm. Sara's aunt is too late and gets left behind. Initial encounters between Sara and the young sergeant Albert. 

Chapter II. A stop in Strängnäs. They breakfast together. 

Chapter III. Back on the steamer. Sara's background and work in Lidköping. Sara and Albert arrange to travel on together down to Västergötland.

Chapter IV. On the steamer: the rich passengers pre-booking rooms. Arriving at Arboga. Gaining a single room (with difficulty). Sleeping arrangements. Albert tries to find a stable or loft, eventually comes back to the room and sleeps in a chair. 

Chapter V. Friday morning. Waking in Arboga, mistaken by the maid for man and wife. Albert kisses Sara. Driving off for Fellingsbro.

Chapter VI. Friday. Driving through Fellingsbro woods (W. of Arboga). 

"...Therefore everyone should be free and live his own life in his own way and not spoil things for another. People can be good friends just the same, and that is the best way. It is pleasantest when all goes well and one does not trouble one's neighbor."

Albert shook his head. "She is still dreaming," he thought.

But she continued, "I suppose God knows what He wants people to be, but I certainly don't. It is best, however, to live as God intended when He made us."

These generalities seemed so ridiculous in the sergeant's eyes that he came near laughing aloud, but out of respect for the expression on the girl's face, which was very thoughtful, he refrained and tried to pursue his own line of thought.

"There is one bit of information you must give me, Sara Videbeck," interposed the sergeant. "Your mother lived an unhappy life with your father; I gathered that from what you told me yesterday. But you must not therefore think all evil comes from men --"

"I know that well enough," she answered. "Why, I know the family of the master turner, Stenberg. His wife is such a quarrelsome hussy that the man is in danger of losing his life on account of her. And it isn't much better at Sederbom's, where the wife is a bit simple-minded, and the man is frantic from grief. And there are the Spolanders -- and the Zakrissons. It is the same everywhere, if one only comes close enough to see them in their cages. They never stop until each has made an utter wretch of the other. I can never approve of that."

"Did your father, Sara, treat your mother badly at first?"

"God only knows. I was not born then and did not see them in the beginning. But I think my mother too, poor thing, had her faults, although she tried to improve. I am sure she was always respectable, but nevertheless wasteful and hard to get along with. So far as I can judge, her manner was never very gracious nor particularly pleasant. And so father, who had his own peculiarities, gradually became one of those -- and thoroughly wicked and finally mad -- ugh!"

"This is getting too distressing, Sara dear. Let's forget Lidköping; we have not got there yet. Do you know the name of these woods?"

"Yes, I think God will forgive me for being what He has made me. That is, when I do as well as I can, of course. But it is unnecessary for me to torture another into the nethermost hell or for another to drive me into it. I don't care what the name of these woods is, Albert, but I know that God has made the stars and the whole heavenly Host. All that is beautiful and good on earth has been created by God, and Christ has come for our salvation. Although I am not a Dissenter, I can well understand that Christ has nothing against the people who love each other and thus fulfill the first commandment. But when it is carried out in such a way that they make devils and madmen out of each other, He cannot approve of it Himself. People have invented so much nonsense to cause each other's misery, and worst of all, they imagine that it is for their benefit. So far as you are concerned, Albert, you are younger as a man than I am as a woman, though you may well be a year or two older in actual age. For that reason, you are not as wise as I am, though you may be familiar with other things that are more beautiful and pleasant. Still you must not think that I am unhappy; I am as free and bold as a bird, and I assure you I intend to keep my wings. If you can fly too, well and good, but if you are only a babbler, you might just as well say so at once."

The four-night gap. This conversation took place on Friday. The couple show up in Mariestad on Tuesday. 

Mariestad: conversation in the churchyard, concerning the care of children, especially of unmarried parents. 

Chapter VII. Mariestad: conversation at the inn. This is the central discussion of the unmarried arrangement that Sara proposes. 

Chapter VIII Mariestad to Lidköping. At Lidköping the pair separate for what's meant to be just a few hours, but then Sara learns of her mother's death. The book ends with Albert (after a worried night alone at an inn) arriving at Sara's home where he's to take rooms upstairs. Here's how it ends:

Her sorrow was painted like a delicate twilight around the uppermost part of her eyes, but the enamel of the white reflected a bluish tinge as never before, and the pupils sparkled. "Albert!" she cried.

He did not answer; he just looked.

"How do you like these rooms? Do you want to rent them? But you cannot know them very well yet. May I not invite you down to my place, and then you can see how I am fixed? Breakfast is waiting. And if you don't start right off again on your trips, this very day, I'll invite you down to dinner also. Will all this do, Albert?"

Still he said nothing. But in the whole expression of his face was the answer: "It will do."


[Den sorg, varom hon talade, satt som en fin skymning omkring det översta av hennes ögon. Men vitögats emalj sken blåvitt, såsom alltid förr, och pupillerna glänste. Albert! sade hon.

Han svarade inget: blott såg.

Vad tycker du om dessa rum? vill du hyra dem? Men du kan inte känna dem mycket ännu. Får jag inte nu bjuda dig ned i mitt, så skall du få se hur jag har det: frukosten väntar. Och börjar du inte dina resor strax i dag, så ber jag dig ock hos mig till middagen. Går allt detta an, Albert?

Han sade ändå inget. Men i hela uttrycket av hans ansikte låg detta svar: Det går an.]


[Surely "as never before" is wrong -- såsom alltid förr means "as always before", i.e. the whites of her eyes had the same bluish shine they always did.]


It's a joyous story of hope and of youthful clarity, of pragmatism and the determination to do things better. 

For all that, I feel no assurance that Sara and Albert would necessarily fare better than any more conventional couple starting out together. 

Sara's distinctiveness, for instance her serious absorption in the glazier business, and her indifference to the poetry of landscape, are both intriguing and irritating to Albert. 

" ... Still, if after a few years I shall have saved a little, it may happen that I shall buy a little place in Timmelhed over towards Ulricehamn, where I have acquaintances. I don't want to persuade you to go there, since you seem to shun the country -- just as I have no particular love for small towns, except as a traveller, and generally get out of them as soon as I can ..."

(Chapter VI)

How will this difference in their outlooks work out, will they continue to respect it in each other, will Albert get bogged down in Sara's small town of Lidköping?

["Timmelhed" is presumably Timmele, in the country far to the south of Lidköping.]

It just isn't possible to assure the future of a love relationship. Sometimes I think it's just good biology and luck, when we see one couple grow together and become more united and amiable and more loving and appreciative with every passing year; and another couple struggling, always more or less pulling in different directions, at loggerheads, less able to be what they could be, less happy with each other and with themselves, their flame of love blown about by conflict. It's like the difference between two bean plants: the one healthy and green and fertile and full of blossom and fat hanging beans; the other one slighter and weaker, less secure in its soil, more prone to drought and blight, a magnet for slugs and insects, so it seems like a victory if it finally manages to outgrow them and put out a few little flowers. 


After the first publication of his story Almqist added an Introduction (subsequently moved to the end as an Epilogue). In it he says that his book is not a thesis, and he adds:

We neither can nor desire to see theses on these subjects. We are mistaken if we believe that scientific systems of any value may be devised in all fields beforehand. We must first learn to know people themselves, observe them in their nooks and corners, listen to their innermost sighs, nor scorn to understand their tears of joy. In brief, what we need are true stories or sketches from life: examples, contributions, and experiences. 

He also says:

It is our opinion that the mystery of morality must be solved simultaneously with the mystery of happiness.

It feels like a bracingly radical statement, for the time. 

It isn't exactly clear why a fiction is to be accepted as a true experience, for the purpose of philosophers and their theses. Perhaps because its convincingness can be tested by the degree of the reader's conviction? -- I'll gladly take it on those terms, but ought I?

Well, maybe that would be in line with something I most definitely agree with, Almqvist's assertion of connaître, of real and personal acquaintance, against modernity's tidal wave of savoir; of data, statistics, quantifiabilities. 

At any rate, at the time Det går an was seen as both less and more than objective documentation. Surely it had a "social tendency", wasn't it in fact a thesis? And as such it gave birth to a good deal of debate, collectively described by Swedish literary historians as gåran-litteratur. Participants included J.V. Snellman, August Blanche (whom Almqvist insulted, then refused his challenge to a duel), Magdalena ("Malla") Silfverstolpe, V.F. Palmblad, and Wilhelmina Stålberg. 

Malla Silfverstolpe was a literary salon hostess and a lively diarist, valued for her descriptions of various eminent literary figures, including Almqvist himself. Here's her contribution to the debate: Månne det går an? Fortsättning (Will it really do? Continuation (1840)) 

In Malla's revisionist continuation Sara learns the harsh realities of being an unmarried mother. It ends with Sara saying to the newly-returned Albert: Give us both your name and your protection, we both need it! (Beside himself with joy, Albert kisses mother and baby.) I know now, I feel it ... It won't do.

Almqist's book also gave rise to the term gåran-dam, meaning a woman who chose to live in the independent way outlined by Sara. (Though in the mouths of cynics it often implied a demi-mondaine.)

One of the targets of Det går an was the guild system, which made it near-impossible for women such as Sara Videbeck to be economically independent. This guild system was abolished in 1846. 


Carl Jonas Love Almqvist (1793-1866) was nearly twenty years older than Charles Dickens (1812-1870), yet I kept being reminded of Dickens. And this despite the fact that a Dickensian argument for unmarried love is laughably impossible to conceive: that there are stark differences between what each author could do and what each author could never do. I suppose this nagging reminder is partly just about the date, the 1830s, the decade that proved the high point of Almqvist's trajectory and witnessed the dazzling emergence of Dickens. 


The same online volume contains Benson's translation of another Almqvist tale, The Chapel (Kapellet) from 1838. 

This perhaps reminds me of Dickens in a more limiting way, for instance of his Christmas books and stories. An idealistic novice priest gives his first sermon at a chapel on an impoverished Blekinge skerry. Here he meets a poor family of fisherfolk whose missing father may be lost at sea. The tale contrives to sketch the entire life stories of its characters while focussing on the history of a single day. 

Benson calls Kapellet "Almqvist's most pleasing and beautiful tale of the common people", and says that it "has long been a Swedish and Danish choice for wholesome folk-reading, and will contribute materially to perpetuate the name of Almqvist". 


This was one of the volumes published by the American-Scandinavian Foundation. I had a momentary hope that all their other early publications might be available online, but that doesn't seem to be the case. 

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Friday, August 06, 2021

Is it all a front


Through my rainy windscreen
the sun flickers for a moment 
on that black 2019 Transporter
It's time to get the bike down
The weather doesn't look great
wipe the seat with the rag
grab the pump and I'm away
but the seat still feels claggy
down the cycle path and under the bypass
crunching over green cobnuts 
while a squirrel races me along the fence.

Bike racks outside the library
There's market stalls today: whelks,
monk, a tray of samphire; a butcher
piles chops, and "Somerset Nibbler"
stands out among the cheeses. 
I feel comfortable, the realness, the accents,
though there's nothing here I'd buy,
it's like a gone past,
not even the veg, which isn't organic.

The post office isn't open yet, so I'm 
straight into Costa for a large soya latte
to charge the phone and read C.J.L Almqvist. 
They're talking about fish, about
feeding the fish while changing the filter,
the snails that died, and other ways of
getting rid of green algae.

You've got a name use it
You can choose your friends but
you can't choose your family
It's a very true saying
people take on a different persona
Is it all a front you know
What she puts on Facebook 
I'm not going to speak ill of anyone
It isn't in my nature 
I've got to be civil, but there's things
that will always stick in my head
Always will
It's like he's still there
Yes it is
But seeing the coffin
Yes of course
It's lovely to talk to you Peter
You're a good person
I try I try

Pictures: a basically sterile bramble thicket, near Beckington (Somerset). John Norton (on the Facebook Brambles Group) told me that it's in Section Corylifolii of Rubus fructicosus agg (Brambles, Blackberries).... I suppose the name means that the leaves -- or rather, leaflets -- have a certain resemblance to hazel leaves; these ones definitely do. Other names in the myriad world of brambles include Rubus ulmifolius (i.e. like elm leaves: this is the most common species, and it's also the only one that reproduces sexually) and Section Glandulosus Series Rhamnifolii (which I assume means that the leaflets look like buckthorn leaves). 

John's website is an inspiring and helpful guide to this world:

There are over 350 named species of bramble in the UK alone. Even so, names are only allocated when the same species can be recognized in several different places. Many local bramble forms are not assigned to a species, and that's particularly the case in Section Corylifolii, which are thought to originate as hybrids of Dewberry (Rubus caesius) with brambles (Rubus fructicosus agg.). 

Section Corylifolii are known for their poor fruit production, though my plant seems quite extreme in that respect. 

Words I learnt:

The individual segments of a blackberry are called "drupelets". 

Leaflets that overlap each other are described as "imbricate", a word deriving from roof tiles (this is a distinctive feature of the Corylifolii). 

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