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Showing posts from December, 2014

Anna Akhmatova: New Year Ballad

The moon, weary in the pall of cloud, 
cast a murky glance at the hill. 
The table was laid for six, 
and only one place was empty. 

My husband, myself and my friends 
are seeing the new year in. 
Why are my fingers covered as with blood? 
Why does the wine burn like poison? 

The host with full glass raised 
was impressive — immobile. 
" I drink to the earth of our own forest glades, 
in which we all lie." 

A friend looked at my face, 
suddenly remembered God knows what, 
and exclaimed: " I drink to her songs 
in which we all live!" 

But a third, not understanding, 
as he went out into the dark, 
answering my thoughts 
said: " We ought to drink to him 
who is not with us yet."

Walt Whitman: Out of the rolling ocean the crowd

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Out of the rolling ocean the crowd came a drop gently to me, Whispering, I love you, before long I die, I have travell’d a long way merely to look on you to touch you, For I could not die till I once look’d on you, For I fear’d I might afterward lose you.
Now we have met, we have look’d, we are safe, Return in peace to the ocean my love, I too am part of that ocean, my love, we are not so much separated, Behold the great rondure, the cohesion of all, how perfect! But as for me, for you, the irresistible sea is to separate us, As for an hour carrying us diverse, yet cannot carry us diverse forever; Be not impatient – a little space – know you I salute the air, the ocean and the land, Every day at sundown for your dear sake, my love. Share this text ...? TwitterPinterest

Great dynasties of the world: The Bloomsbury group

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'Once more I cry aloud," writes Clive Bell at the end of his 1954 essay What was "Bloomsbury"?. "Who were the members of Bloomsbury? For what did they stand?" Good questions. The Bloomsbury group was not exactly a group. Nor was it merely a clique. There was no clear set of members, and no manifesto. It was, according to FR Leavis, merely a sort of coterie – of an inferior kind. DH Lawrence famously described various individuals associated with the group as "little swarming selves". He imagined crushing them. Leonard Woolf – a founding member – claimed that they were in fact "a largely imaginary group of persons with largely imaginary objects and characteristics". According to Frances Spalding, in her indispensable illustrated introductory guide, The Bloomsbury Group (2005), the term is merely a useful "collective title for a group of friends". Another way of looking at the Bloomsbury group is to see it as the coming together of…

Virginia Woolf Wonders What Greatness Jane Austen's Death Prevented

Anybody who has had the temerity to write about Jane Austen is aware of two facts: First, that of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness; second, that there are 25 elderly gentlemen living in the neighborhood of London who resent any slight upon her genius as if it were an insult offered to the chastity of their aunts. It would be interesting, indeed, to inquire how much of her present celebrity Jane Austen owes to masculine sensibility; to the fact that her dress was becoming, her eyes bright, and her age the antithesis in all matters of female charm to our own. A companion inquiry might investigate the problem of George Eliot's nose; and decide how long it will be before the equine profile is once again in favor, and the Oxford Press celebrates the genius of the author of Middlemarch in an edition as splendid, as authoritative, and as exquisitely illustrated as this. But it is not mere cowardice that prompts us to say nothing of the six novels…

Roger Fry’s Formalism

Of all the critics who have helped to mould our present standards of appreciation none can equal the influence of Roger Fry, the founder of British post-impressionism. What did he teach concerning the nature of art and its relation to life?

The first systematic account of Fry’s attitude to these questions is the important ‘Essay in Aesthetics’ of 1909. He himself later summarized its main conclusions as follows:

‘I conceived the form of a work of art to be its most essential quality, but I believed this form to be the direct outcome of an apprehension of some emotion of actual life by the artist, although, no doubt, that apprehension was of a special and peculiar kind and implied a certain detachment. I also conceived that the spectator in contemplating the form must inevitably travel in the opposite direction along the same road which the artist had taken, and himself feel the original emotion. I conceived the form and the emotion which it conveyed as being inextricably bound together …

Reelin’ in the Years - Reconsidering Virginia Woolf’s time-warped novel Orlando

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We meet Orlando as a boy of sixteen years, introduced during the waning days of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. The bored son of nobility, Orlando is favored as the queen’s pet, fêted with privilege and riches, before he falls in love with a beautiful Russian princess during the great frost of 1608. After watching her boat sail away the morning the Thames thaws, Orlando loses nearly a century idly reading and writing in his ancestral estate before being sent to Istanbul as an ambassador; there, without explanation or histrionics, Orlando falls asleep for one week and wakes up a woman. Ultimately she returns to England in time to hold court with Alexander Pope and eventually marry, witnessing along the way the birth of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By the end of Orlando: A Biography, Virginia Woolf’s account of over three centuries in the life of an apparent immortal, Orlando is in her midthirties, and the novel ends on the day of its initial publication: October 11, 1928.

Despite be…

An Imperfect Life: On George and W.B. Yeats

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The time is 1917; the place, London. The war is on. You are a young woman, attractive, well-off, fluent in French, German and Italian. Since no adequate translation of Pico della Mirandola exists, you translate the Renaissance Neo-Platonist’s Latin yourself. But while your interest in esoteric philosophy leads you to become a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, your eyes are wide open. You volunteer for the Red Cross. You are immersed in London’s literary avant-garde. After all, your best friend is married to the American poet Ezra Pound. Your friend’s mother was once the lover of W.B. Yeats, whom Pound considers the greatest living poet—hardly an idiosyncratic opinion.

You have had no love affairs of consequence. When Yeats, a 51-year-old bachelor, once again proposes to Maud Gonne (the Irish actress and political activist with whom he’d fallen in love as a young man), she declines. When Yeats then proposes to Maud’s daughter, Iseult, she also declines; Iseult would later…

New Selected Journals, 1939-1995 by Stephen Spender

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"I am going to keep a journal because I cannot accept the fact that I feel so shattered that I cannot write at all,” Stephen Spender wrote on September 3 1939. He meant, of course, that he couldn’t write poetry, which he always regarded as his principal job. His feeling shattered was not just because Britain had declared war on Germany that day, but also because his first wife, Inez Pearn, had recently left him. “It so happens that the world has broken just at the moment when my own life has broken,” he wrote, and this combination of the public and the private, of world events and personal dilemmas, was characteristic of his life and career. He subtitled his 1978 collection of essays, The Thirties and After, “Poetry, Politics, People”, and these were the things that preoccupied him in the journals he kept throughout his life, in which analyses of his own work and character, and those of his friends, are recorded alongside a thoughtful commentary on world events. Dedicating The Orat…

Hilary Mantel on grief

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” With his first line, CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed reacquaints his reader with the physiology of mourning; he brings into each mouth the common taste of private and personal loss. “I know something of this,” you think. Even if you have not experienced a “front line” bereavement, such as the loss of partner, parent or child, you have certainly lost something you value: a marriage or a job, an internal organ or some aspect of mind or body that defines who you are. Perhaps you have just lost yourself on your way through life, lost your chances or your reputation or your integrity, or chosen to lose bad memories by pushing them into a personal and portable tomb. Perhaps you have merely wasted time, and seethe with frustration because you can’t recall it. The pattern of all losses mirrors the pattern of the gravest losses. Disbelief is followed by numbness, numbness by distraction, despair, exhaustion. Your former life still seems to exist, …

Such, Such Was Eric Blair/George Orwell

You have to feel a little sorry for Mr. and Mrs. Vaughan Wilkes, or “Sambo” and “Flip” as they were known to their charges. During the first decades of the twentieth century, they ran St. Cyprian’s, a preparatory school in Eastbourne, on the south coast of England. It was no worse than many other such establishments: the food was bad, the building underheated, physical punishment the norm. Pupils learned “as fast as fear could teach us,” one alumnus later wrote. The day began with a frigid and fetid plungebath; boys denounced one another to the authorities for homosexual practices; and daily morale was dependent on whether a boy was in or out of favor with Flip. In some ways the school was better than many: it had a good academic record, Sambo nurtured contacts at the most important public schools, especially Eton, and clever boys from decent families of modest income were accepted on half fees. This was a calculated act of generosity: in return the boys were meant to reward the schoo…

The House of Edith

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The main impression one has of Edith Wharton after reading this full-scale biography is what a dynamo she was. Whether she was writing her novels or organizing her research for them, setting up hospitals in France during World War I, motoring or sailing about Europe with friends, laying out impressive gardens, building or rebuilding houses and writing about it, entertaining, reading Dante in Italian or Goethe in German or Proust in French, looking at paintings, arranging for her own divorce, putting everyone in his or her place, sweetly or maliciously but always firmly—whatever she was doing, she was inexhaustible. She admired steadiness of spirit and self-discipline in others and could vouch for her own rigorous virtues. She had two aspects: forbidding in public, the perfect dowager; and light-hearted and amusing in private. But even with friends every moment of the day was calibrated down to the second. When she became too exacting and bossy one of her indulgent friends would say sh…

‘At last I am alone’, from the diary of Dora Carrington

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At last I am alone. At last there is nothing between us. I have been reading my letters to you in the library this evening. You are so engraved on my brain that I think of nothing else. Everything I look at is part of you. And there seems no point in life now you are gone. I used to say: ‘I must eat my meals properly as Lytton wouldn’t like me to behave badly when he was away.’ But now there is no coming back. No point in ‘improvements’. Nobody to write letters to. Only the interminable long days which never seem to end and the nights which end all too soon and turn to dawns. All gaiety has gone out of my life and I feel old and melancholy. All I can do is to plant snow drops and daffodils in my graveyard! Now there is nothing left. All your papers have been taken away. Your clothes have gone. Your room is bare. In a few months no traces will be left. Just a few book plates in some books and never again, however long I look out of the window, will I see your tall thin figure walking a…

William Cowper: Epitaph on a Hare

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HERE lies, whom hound did ne'er pursue,
     Nor swifter greyhound follow,
Whose foot ne'er tainted morning dew,
     Nor ear heard huntsman's Hallo',

Old Tiney, surliest of his kind,
     Who, nurs'd with tender care,
And to domestic bounds confin'd,
     Was still a wild Jack-hare.

Though duly from my hand he took
     His pittance ev'ry night,
He did it with a jealous look,
     And, when he could, would bite.

His diet was of wheaten bread,
     And milk, and oats, and straw,
Thistles, or lettuces instead,
     With sand to scour his maw.

On twigs of hawthorn he regal'd,
     On pippins' russet peel;
And, when his juicy salads fail'd,
     Slic'd carrot pleas'd him well.

A Turkey carpet was his lawn,
     Whereon he lov'd to bound,
To skip and gambol like a fawn,
     And swing his rump around.

His frisking was at evening hours,
     For then he lost his fear;
But most before approaching show'rs,
     Or when a storm drew near.

Eight years and five round…

Seamus Heaney: no shuffling or cutting — just turning over aces

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The impersonator — Rory Bremner, Steve Coogan — speaks, in different voices, to a single primitive pleasure centre in his audience. Counterintuitively, we like the imposition of imposture. We connive at deceit, at replication, for the release of neurotransmitters, the flood of endorphins — the brandies of the brain. I once heard Peter Ustinov on a chat show replicate the sound of an electric bell being pressed. Pleasure on a different, even more vertiginous level. The audience was convulsed. Unless a poet can produce this ungainsayable instant delight in the reader, this drench of dopamine, the poetry is automatically of the second order. (We expect less of our novelists, though great prose writers, such as Joyce or Dickens or Kipling, can also do it at will: Major Bagstock has a ‘complexion like a Stilton cheese, and… eyes like a prawn’s’; Mrs Podsnap has ‘nostrils like a rocking-horse’; Kipling gives us ‘the sticky pull of… slow-rending oilskin’; Joyce has the iron rim of a wheel ‘ha…