Thursday, 24 May 2012

Paul Éluard: Uninterrupted Poetry

From the sea to the source

From mountain to plain
Runs the phantom of life
The foul shadow of death
But between us
A dawn of ardent flesh is born
And exact good
that sets the earth in order
We advance with calm step
And nature salutes us
The day embodies our colours
Fire our eyes the sea our union
And all living resemble us
All the living we love
Imaginary the others
Wrong and defined by their birth
But we must struggle against them
They live by dagger blows
They speak like a broken chair
Their lips tremble with joy
At the echo of leaden bells
At the muteness of dark gold
A lone heart not a heart
A lone heart all the hearts
And the bodies every star
In a sky filled with stars
In a career in movement
Of light and of glances
Our weight shines on the earth
Glaze of desire
To sing of human shores
For you the living I love
And for all those that we love
That have no desire but to love
I’ll end truly by barring the road
Afloat with enforced dreams
I’ll end truly by finding myself
We’ll take possession of earth 

Friday, 18 May 2012

G.K. Chesterton on Bleak House

Bleak House is not certainly Dickens's best book; but perhaps it is his best novel. Such a distinction is not a mere verbal trick; it has to be remembered rather constantly in connection with his work. This particular story represents the highest point of his intellectual maturity. Maturity does not necessarily mean perfection. It is idle to say that a mature potato is perfect; some people like new potatoes. A mature potato is not perfect, but it is a mature potato; the mind of an intelligent epicure may find it less adapted to his particular purpose; but the mind of an intelligent potato would at once admit it as being, beyond all doubt, a genuine, fully developed specimen of his own particular species. The same is in some degree true even of literature. We can say more or less when a human being has come to his full mental growth, even if we go so far as to wish that he had never come to it. Children are very much nicer than grown-up people; but there is such a thing as growing up. When Dickens wrote Bleak House he had grown up. 

Like Napoleon, he had made his army on the march. He had walked in front of his mob of aggressive characters as Napoleon did in front of the half-baked battalions of the Revolution. And, like Napoleon, he won battle after battle before he knew his own plan of campaign; like Napoleon, he put the enemies' forces to rout before he had put his own force into order Like Napoleon, he had a victorious army almost before he had an army. After his decisive victories Napoleon began to put his house in order; after his decisive victories Dickens also began to put his house in order. The house, when he had put it in order, was Bleak House. 

There was one thing common to nearly all the other Dickens tales, with the possible exception of Dombey and Son. They were all rambling tales; and they all had a perfect right to be. They were all rambling tales for the very simple reason that they were all about rambling people. They were novels of adventure; they were even diaries of travel. Since the hero strayed from place to place, it did not seem unreasonable that the story should stray from subject to subject. This is true of the bulk of the novels up to and including David Copperfield, up to the very brink or threshold of Bleak House. Mr. Pickwick wanders about on the white English roads, always looking for antiquities and always finding novelties. Poor Oliver Twist wanders along the same white roads to seek his fortune and to find his misfortune. Nicholas Nickleby goes walking across England because he is young and hopeful; Little Nell's grandfather does the same thing because he is old and silly. There is not much in common between Samuel Pickwick and Oliver Twist; there is not much in common between Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby; there is not much in common (let us hope) between Little Nell's grandfather and any other human being. But they all have this in common, that they may actually all have trodden in each other's footprints. They were all wanderers on the face of the same fair English land. Martin Chuzzlewit was only made popular by the travels of the hero in America. When we come to Dombey and Son we find, as I have said, an exception; but even here it is odd to note the fact that it was an exception almost by accident. In Dickens's original scheme of the story, much greater prominence was to have been given to the travels and trials of Walter Gay; in fact, the young man was to have had a deterioration of character which could only have been adequately detailed in him in his character of a vagabond and a wastrel. The most important point, however, is that when we come to David Copperfield, in some sense the summit of his serious literature, we find the thing still there. The hero still wanders from place to place, his genius is still gipsy. The adventures in the book are less violent and less improbable than those which wait for Pickwick and Nicholas Nickleby; but they are still adventures and not merely events; they are still things met on a road. The facts of the story fall away from David as such facts do fall away from a traveller walking fast. We are more likely perhaps, to pass by Mr. Creakle's school than to pass by Mrs. Jarley's wax-works. The only point is that we should pass by both of them. Up to this point in Dickens's development, his novel, however true, is still picaresque; his hero never really rests anywhere in the story. No one seems really to know where Mr. Pickwick lived. Here he has no abiding city. 

When we come to Bleak House, we come to a change in artistic structure. The thing is no longer a string of incidents; it is a cycle of incidents. It returns upon itself; it has recurrent melody and poetic justice; it has artistic constancy and artistic revenge. It preserves the unities; even to some extent it preserves the unities of time and place. The story circles round two or three symbolic places; it does not go straggling irregularly all over England like one of Mr. Pickwick's coaches. People go from one place to another place; but not from one place to another place on the road to everywhere else. Mr. Jarndyce goes from Bleak House to visit Mr. Boythorn; but he comes back to Bleak House. Miss Clare and Miss Summerson go from Bleak House to visit Mr. and Mrs. Bayham Badger; but they come back to Bleak House. The whole story strays from Bleak House and plunges into the foul fogs of Chancery and the autumn mists of Chesney Wold; but the whole story comes back to Bleak House. The domestic title is appropriate; it is a permanent address. 

Dickens's openings are almost always good; but the opening of Bleak House is good in a quite new and striking sense. Nothing could be better, for instance, than the first foolish chapter about the genealogy of the Chuzzlewits; but it has nothing to do with the Chuzzlewits. Nothing could be better than the first chapter of David Copperfield; the breezy entrance and banging exit of Miss Betsey Trotwood. But if there is ultimately any crisis or serious subject-matter of David Copperfield, it is the marred marriage with Dora, the final return to Agnes; and all this is in no way involved in the highly-amusing fact that his aunt expected him to be a girl. We may repeat that the matter is picaresque. The story begins in one place and ends in another place, and there is no real connection between the beginning and the end except a biographical connection. 

A picaresque novel is only a very eventful biography; but the opening of Bleak House is quite another business altogether. It is admirable in quite another way. The description of the fog in the first chapter of Bleak House is good in itself; but it is not merely good in itself, like the description of the wind in the opening of Martin Chuzzlewit; it is also good in the sense that Maeterlinck is good; it is what the modern people call an atmosphere. Dickens begins in the Chancery fog because he means to end in the Chancery fog. He did not begin in the Chuzzlewit wind because he meant to end in it; he began in it because it was a good beginning. This is perhaps the best short way of stating the peculiarity of the position of Bleak House. In this Bleak House beginning we have the feeling that it is not only a beginning; we have the feeling that the author sees the conclusion and the whole. The beginning is alpha and omega: the beginning and the end. He means that all the characters and all the events shall be read through the smoky colours of that sinister and unnatural vapour. 

The same is true throughout the whole tale; the whole tale is symbolic and crowded with symbols. Miss Flite is a funny character, like Miss La Creevy, but Miss La Creevy means only Miss La Creevy. Miss Flite means Chancery. The rag-and-bone man, Krook, is a powerful grotesque; so is Quilp; but in the story Quilp only means Quilp; Krook means Chancery. Rick Carstone is a kind and tragic figure, like Sidney Carton; but Sidney Carton only means the tragedy of human nature; Rick Carstone means the tragedy of Chancery. Little Jo dies pathetically like Little Paul; but for the death of Little Paul we can only blame Dickens; for the death of Little Jo we blame Chancery. Thus the artistic unity of the book, compared to all the author's earlier novels, is satisfying, almost suffocating. There is the motif, and again the motif. Almost everything is calculated to assert and re-assert the savage morality of Dickens's protest against a particular social evil. The whole theme is that which another Englishman as jovial as Dickens defined shortly and finally as the law's delay. The fog of the first chapter never lifts. 

In this twilight he traced wonderful shapes. Those people who fancy that Dickens was a mere clown; that he could not describe anything delicate or deadly in the human character, -- those who fancy this are mostly people whose position is explicable in many easy ways. The vast majority of the fastidious critics have, in the quite strict and solid sense of the words, never read Dickens at all; hence their opposition is due to and inspired by a hearty innocence which will certainly make them enthusiastic Dickensians if they ever. by some accident, happen to read him. In other cases it is due to a certain habit of reading books under the eye of a conventional critic, admiring what we expect to admire, regretting what we are told to regret, waiting for Mr. Bumble to admire him, waiting for Little Nell to despise her. Yet again, of course, it is sometimes due to that basest of all artistic indulgences (certainly far baser than the pleasure of absinthe or the pleasure of opium), the pleasure of appreciating works of art which ordinary men cannot appreciate. Surely the vilest point of human vanity is exactly that; to ask to be admired for admiring what your admirers do not admire. But whatever be the reason, whether rude or subtle, which has prevented any particular man from personally admiring Dickens, there is in connection with a book like Bleak House something that may be called a solid and impressive challenge. Let anyone who thinks that Dickens could not describe the semi-tones and the abrupt instincts of real human nature simply take the trouble to read the stretch of chapters which detail the way in which Carstone's mind grew gradually morbid about his chances in Chancery. Let him note the manner in which the mere masculinity of Carstone is caught; how as he grows more mad he grows more logical, nay, more rational. Good women who love him come to him, and point out the fact that Jarndyce is a good man, a fact to them solid like an object of the senses. In answer he asks them to understand his position. He does not say this; he does not say that. He only urges that Jarndyce may have become cynical in the affair in the same sense that he himself may have become cynical in the affair. He is always a man; that is to say, he is always unanswerable, always wrong. The passionate certainty of the woman beats itself like battering waves against the thin smooth wall of his insane consistency. I repeat: let any one who thinks that Dickens was a gross and indelicate artist read that part of the book. If Dickens had been the clumsy journalist that such people represent, he never could have written such an episode at all. A clumsy journalist would have made Rick Carstone in his mad career cast off Esther and Ada and the others. The great artist knew better. He knew that even if all the good in a man is dying, the last sense that dies is the sense that knows a good woman from a bad; it is like the scent of a noble hound. 

The clumsy journalist would have made Rick Carstone turn on John Jarndyce with an explosion of hatred, as of one who had made an exposure -- who had found out what low people call "a false friend" in what they call "his true colours." The great artist knew better; he knew that a good man going wrong tries to salve his soul to the last with the sense of generosity and intellectual justice. He will try to love his enemy if only out of mere love of himself. As the wolf dies fighting, the good man gone wrong dies arguing. This is what constitutes the true and real tragedy of Richard Carstone. It is strictly the one and only great tragedy that Dickens wrote. It is like the tragedy of Hamlet. The others are not tragedies because they deal almost with dead men. The tragedy of old Dorrit is merely the sad spectacle of a dotard dragged about Europe in his last childhood. The tragedy of Steerforth is only that of one who dies suddenly; the tragedy of old Dombey only that of one who was dead all the time. But Rick is a real tragedy, for he is still alive when the quicksand sucks him down. 

It is impossible to avoid putting in the first place this pall of smoke which Dickens has deliberately spread over the story. It is quite true that the country underneath is clear enough to contain any number of unconscious comedians or of merry monsters such as he was in the custom of introducing into the carnival of his tales. But he meant us to take the smoky atmosphere seriously. Charles Dickens, who was, like all men who are really funny about funny things, horribly serious about serious things, certainly meant us to read this story in terms of his protest and his insurrection against the emptiness and arrogance of law, against the folly and the pride of judges. Everything else that there is in this story entered into it through the unconscious or accidental energy of his genius, which broke in at every gap. But it was the tragedy of Richard Carstone that he meant, not the comedy of Harold Skimpole. He could not help being amusing; but he meant to be depressing. 

Another case might be taken as testing the greater seriousness of this tale. The passages about Mrs. Jellyby and her philanthropic schemes show Dickens at his best in his old and more familiar satiric manner. But in the midst of the Jellyby pandemonium, which is in itself described with the same abandon and irrelevance as the boarding-house of Mrs. Todgers or the travelling theatre of Mr. Crummles, the elder Dickens introduced another piece of pure truth and even tenderness. I mean the account of Caddy Jellyby. If Carstone is a truly masculine study of how a man goes wrong, Caddy is a perfectly feminine study of how a girl goes right. Nowhere else perhaps in fiction, and certainly nowhere else in Dickens, is the mere female paradox so well epitomised, the unjust use of words covering so much capacity for a justice of ultimate estimate; the seeming irresponsibility in language concealing such a fixed and pitiless sense of responsibility about things; the air of being always at daggers-drawn with her own kindred, yet the confession of incurable kinship implied in pride and shame; and, above all, that thirst for order and beauty as for something physical; that strange female power of hating ugliness and waste as good men can only hate sin and bad men virtue. Every touch in her is true, from her first bewildering outbursts of hating people because she likes them, down to the sudden quietude and good sense which announces that she has slipped into her natural place as a woman. Miss Clare is a figure-head, Miss Summerson in some ways a failure; but Miss Caddy Jellyby is by far the greatest, the most human, and the most really dignified of all the heroines of Dickens. 

More here.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Stéphane Mallarmé: The Flowers

From golden showers of the ancient skies,
On the first day, and the eternal snow of stars,
You once unfastened giant calyxes
For the young earth still innocent of scars:
Young gladioli with the necks of swans,
Laurels divine, of exiled souls the dream,
Vermilion as the modesty of dawns
Trod by the footsteps of the seraphim;
The hyacinth, the myrtle gleaming bright,
And, like the flesh of woman, the cruel rose,
Hérodiade blooming in the garden light,
She that from wild and radiant blood arose!
And made the sobbing whiteness of the lily
That skims a sea of sighs, and as it wends
Through the blue incense of horizons, palely
Toward the weeping moon in dreams ascends!
Hosanna on the lute and in the censers,
Lady, and of our purgatorial groves!
Through heavenly evenings let the echoes answer,
Sparkling haloes, glances of rapturous love!
Mother, who in your strong and righteous bosom,
Formed calyxes balancing the future flask,
Capacious flowers with the deadly balsam
For the weary poet withering on the husk.
Stéphane Mallarmé, "The Flowers" from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1994 by Stéphane Mallarmé.  Reprinted by permission of University of California Press.

Source: Collected Poems (The University of California Press, 1994)

Monday, 7 May 2012

Robert Browning: A Grammarian's Funeral

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Portrait of Robert Browning

Shortly after the Revival of Learning in Europe
Let us begin and carry up this corpse,
         Singing together.
Leave we the common crofts, the vulgar thorpes
         Each in its tether
Sleeping safe on the bosom of the plain,
         Cared-for till cock-crow:
Look out if yonder be not day again
         Rimming the rock-row!
That's the appropriate country; there, man's thought,
         Rarer, intenser,
Self-gathered for an outbreak, as it ought,
         Chafes in the censer.
Leave we the unlettered plain its herd and crop;
         Seek we sepulture
On a tall mountain, citied to the top,
         Crowded with culture!
All the peaks soar, but one the rest excels;
         Clouds overcome it;
No! yonder sparkle is the citadel's
         Circling its summit.
Thither our path lies; wind we up the heights:
         Wait ye the warning?
Our low life was the level's and the night's;
         He's for the morning.
Step to a tune, square chests, erect each head,
         'Ware the beholders!
This is our master, famous, calm and dead,
         Borne on our shoulders.

   Sleep, crop and herd! sleep, darkling thorpe and croft,
         Safe from the weather!
He, whom we convoy to his grave aloft,
         Singing together,
He was a man born with thy face and throat,
         Lyric Apollo!
Long he lived nameless: how should spring take note
         Winter would follow?
Till lo, the little touch, and youth was gone!
         Cramped and diminished,
Moaned he, "New measures, other feet anon!
         My dance is finished"?
No, that's the world's way: (keep the mountain-side,
         Make for the city!)
He knew the signal, and stepped on with pride
          Over men's pity;
Left play for work, and grappled with the world
          Bent on escaping:
"What's in the scroll," quoth he, "thou keepest furled
          Show me their shaping,
Theirs who most studied man, the bard and sage,
          Give!" So, he gowned him,
Straight got by heart that book to its last page:
          Learned, we found him.
Yea, but we found him bald too, eyes like lead,
          Accents uncertain:
"Time to taste life," another would have said,
          "Up with the curtain!"
This man said rather, "Actual life comes next?
          Patience a moment!
Grant I have mastered learning's crabbed text,
          Still there's the comment.
Let me know all! Prate not of most or least,
          Painful or easy!
Even to the crumbs I'd fain eat up the feast,
          Ay, nor feel queasy."
Oh, such a life as he resolved to live,
          When he had learned it,
When he had gathered all books had to give!
          Sooner, he spurned it.
Image the whole, then execute the parts
          Fancy the fabric
Quite, ere you build, ere steel strike fire from quartz,
          Ere mortar dab brick!

    (Here's the town-gate reached: there's the market-place
          Gaping before us.)
Yea, this in him was the peculiar grace
          (Hearten our chorus!)
That before living he'd learn how to live
          No end to learning:
Earn the means first   God surely will contrive
          Use for our earning.
Others mistrust and say, "But time escapes:
          Live now or never!"
He said, "What's time? Leave Now for dogs and apes!
          Man has Forever."
Back to his book then: deeper drooped his head:
          Calculus racked him:
Leaden before, his eyes grew dross of lead:
          Tussis attacked him.
"Now, master, take a little rest!" not he!
          (Caution redoubled
Step two abreast, the way winds narrowly!)
          Not a whit troubled,
Back to his studies, fresher than at first,
          Fierce as a dragon
He (soul-hydroptic with a sacred thirst)
          Sucked at the flagon.
Oh, if we draw a circle premature,
          Heedless of far gain,
Greedy for quick returns of profit, sure
          Bad is our bargain!
Was it not great? did not he throw on God,
          (He loves the burthen)
God's task to make the heavenly period
          Perfect the earthen?
Did not he magnify the mind, show clear
          Just what it all meant?
He would not discount life, as fools do here,
          Paid by instalment.
He ventured neck or nothing heaven's success
          Found, or earth's failure:
"Wilt thou trust death or not?" He answered "Yes:
          Hence with life's pale lure!"
That low man seeks a little thing to do,
          Sees it and does it:
This high man, with a great thing to pursue,
          Dies ere he knows it.
That low man goes on adding one to one,
          His hundred's soon hit:
This high man, aiming at a million,
          Misses an unit.
That, has the world here   should he need the next,
          Let the world mind him!
This, throws himself on God, and unperplexed
          Seeking shall find him.
So, with the throttling hands of death at strife,
          Ground he at grammar;
Still, thro' the rattle, parts of speech were rife:
          While he could stammer
He settled Hoti's business let it be!
          Properly based Oun
Gave us the doctrine of the enclitic De,
          Dead from the waist down.
Well, here's the platform, here's the proper place:
          Hail to your purlieus,
All ye highfliers of the feathered race,
          Swallows and curlews!
Here's the top-peak; the multitude below
          Live, for they can, there:
This man decided not to Live but Know
          Bury this man there?
Here   here's his place, where meteors shoot, clouds form,
          Lightnings are loosened,
Stars come and go! Let joy break with the storm,
          Peace let the dew send!
Lofty designs must close in like effects:
          Loftily lying,
Leave him   still loftier than the world suspects,
          Living and dying.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Eva Gore-Booth: There Is No Age

There is no age, this darkness and decay
Is by a radiant spirit cast aside,
Young with the ageless youth that yesterday
Bent to the yoke of flesh immortal pride.

What though in time of thunder and black cloud
The Spirit of the Innermost recedes
Into the depths of Being, stormy browed,
Obscured by a long life of dreams and deeds—

There is no age—the swiftly passing hour
That measures out our days of pilgrimage
And breaks the heart of every summer flower,
Shall find again the child’s soul in the sage.

There is no age, for youth is the divine;
And the white radiance of the timeless soul
Burns like a silver lamp in that dark shrine
That is the tired pilgrim’s ultimate goal.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Flannery O’Connor and the Habit of Art

“For the writer of fiction,” Flannery O’Connor once said, “everything has its testing point in the eye, and the eye is an organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be got into it.” This way of seeing she described as part of the “habit of art,” a concept borrowed from the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. She used the expression to explain the way of seeing that the artist must cultivate, one that does not separate meaning from experience.
The visual arts became one of her favorite touchstones for explaining this process. Many disciplines could help your writing, she said, but especially drawing: “Anything that helps you to see. Anything that makes you look.” Why was this emphasis on seeing and vision so important to her in explaining how fiction works? Because she came to writing from a background in the visual arts, where everything the artist communicates is apprehended, first, by the eye.
She had developed the habits of the artist, that way of seeing and observing and representing the world around her, from years of working as a cartoonist. She discovered for herself the nuances of practicing her craft in a medium that involved communicating with images and experimenting with the physical expressions of the body in carefully choreographed arrangements. Her natural proclivity for capturing the humorous character of real people and concrete situations, two rudimentary elements she later asserted form the genesis of any story, found expression in her prolific drawings and cartoons long before she began her career as a fiction writer.
Beginning at about age five, O’Connor drew and made cartoons, created small books, and wrote stories and comical sketches, often accompanied by her own illustrations. Although her interest in writing was equally evident, by the time she reached high school her abilities as a cartoonist had moved to the forefront. After her first cartoon was published in the fall of 1940, her work appeared in nearly every issue of her high-school and college newspapers, as well as yearbooks—roughly a hundred between 1940 and 1945—and most of these were produced from linoleum block cuts. When she graduated from the Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville in 1945, she was a celebrated local cartoonist preparing for a career in journalism that would, she hoped, combine work as a professional writer and cartoonist.
In her three years at GSCW, she earned a reputation among the students and alumnae as the “cartoon girl.” The staff members of the 1944 Spectrum yearbook gave her special recognition, publishing this acknowledgment for her in the yearbook: “Mary Flannery O’Connor, of cartoon fame, was the bright spot of our existence. There was always a smile in the Spectrum office on the days when her linoleum cuts came in.” During her senior year, she was The Spectrum’s feature editor, and her cartoons were the organizing principle of the entire design concept, providing a retrospective of O’Connor’s years as the school’s documentary cartoonist, caricaturist, and resident comic wit.
Taken as a whole, her cartoons comment on a predictable range of student experiences—the anticipation of vacations and holidays, complaints about teachers, cramming for final exams—and represent an impressive collection of single-frame satires anchored by human interaction. She targets the anti-intellectualism and social pretensions of her fellow students most frequently, but she also takes up some of the popular cranks about the school’s shortcomings and responds to the effects of World War II on the lives of the students, particularly the presence of the training school for WAVES that invaded the campus in early 1943. Her cartoons showed a talent for mimicking what she observed about people, their appearance, behavior, and manners, and what these things revealed about their character, or what she thought they showed.
Her first cartoon for The Peabody Palladium, “One Result of the New Peabody Orchestra,” published October 28, 1940, responds to an announcement on the front page, “Orchestra and Music Club Are Organized.” “The orchestra and the ‘Music Lover’s Club’ are two new organizations that have been started by the music minded people in Peabody,” the article reports. According to the cartoon, it appears that the music-minded are not always the music-talented, and at least one girl may be planning to keep her distance from this school activity. The school’s music programs were the subject of at least one other cartoon, “Music Appreciation Hath Charms” which has a girl snoozing in her chair with her legs stretched out and her arm hanging to the side as bars of music float in her direction. O’Connor later wrote of herself that she not only had a “tin leg,” but also a “tin ear.” She was sent to piano lessons and tried her hand at the accordion and the bass violin, but it was never quite her bag. The only time her mother ever recalled spanking O’Connor was to make her wear hose to her first piano recital. ...
More here.