Wednesday, 31 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

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.
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Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Great dynasties of the world: The Bloomsbury group

Charleston: the Bloomsbury Group's retreat in pictures
'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 two extraordinary families, the Stephens and the Stracheys, around whose effulgence a constellation of others gathered.
Leslie Stephen was a literary critic. His first wife, Harriet Marian, was the daughter of the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. His second wife, Julia Prinsep Jackson, was the niece of the pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. His father was a permanent undersecretary in the British colonial office. His brother was a judge. With Julia, Leslie Stephen had four children: Vanessa, Thoby, Adrian and Virginia. Julia Jackson died young, and when Leslie Stephen died in 1904 the siblings moved to 46 Gordon Square, in Bloomsbury, London, where they began to receive guests "at home".
Some of those guests included the friends that Thoby Stephen had made when he was at Cambridge. One of these friends was Lytton Strachey. While the Stephens were solid members of the Victorian upper middle-class, the Stracheys were eccentric adventurers. Jane Strachey, the matriarch, was a pioneering feminist. Her husband, Richard, was an engineer and administrator in India. Among their 10 children were Pernel, who became principal of Newnham College, Cambridge; Pippa, a leading suffragist; Oliver, a cryptographer; and James, the psychoanalyst, and editor and translator of the 24-volume Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud.
Lytton Strachey's friends and associates included Leonard Woolf, EM Forster, John Maynard Keynes, the writer Clive Bell, the painter Roger Fry, and the critic Desmond MacCarthy. They too became drawn into the Bloomsbury set. Thoby Stephen died of typhoid fever in 1906, but by then many of the important alliances between friends and families had been established. In 1907, Vanessa Stephen married Clive Bell, with whom she had two sons. In 1912, Leonard Woolf married Virginia Stephen, at Lytton Strachey's urging; Strachey had already proposed to Virginia himself, before quickly realising his mistake. "I think there's no doubt whatever that you ought to marry her," he wrote to Leonard. "You would be great enough, and you'd have the advantage of physical desire."
The plots thickened. The roots became ever more tangled. Vanessa had an affair with Duncan Grant, who was Lytton Strachey's cousin, and with whom she had a child. Lytton Strachey was also in love with Duncan, though he lived in a menage a trois with the painter Dora Carrington and their friend Ralph Partridge. Virginia enjoyed a famous affair with Vita Sackville-West, wife of Harold Nicolson. Somehow, the whole thing hung together. Bloomsbury, according to Virginia, consisted of a group of friends who shared an outlook on life that "keeps them dining together, and staying together, after 20 years; and no amount of quarrelling or success, or failure has altered this."
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Monday, 29 December 2014

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 of the new edition. It is impossible to say too much about the novels that Jane Austen did write; but enough attention perhaps has never yet been paid to the novels that Jane Austen did not write. Owing to the peculiar finish and perfection of her art, we tend to forget that she died at 42, at the height of her powers, still subject to all those changes which often make the final period of a writer’s career the most interesting of all. Let us take Persuasion, the last completed book, and look by its light at the novels that she might have written had she lived to be 60-years-old. We do not grudge it him, but her brother the Admiral lived to be ninety-one.
There is a peculiar dullness and a peculiar beauty in Persuasion. The dullness is that which so often marks the transition stage between two different periods. The writer is a little bored. She has grown too familiar with the ways of her world. There is an asperity in her comedy which suggests that she has almost ceased to be amused by the vanities of a Sir Walter or the snobbery of a Miss Elliott. The satire is harsh, and the comedy crude. She is no longer so freshly aware of the amusements of daily life. Her mind is not altogether on the subject. But, while we feel that Jane Austen has done this before, and done it better, we also feel that she is trying to do something which she has never yet attempted. There is a new element in Persuasion, a quality, perhaps, that made Dr. Whewell fire up and insist that it was "the most beautiful of her works."
She is beginning to discover that the world is larger, more mysterious, and more romantic than she had supposed. We feel it to be true of herself when she says of Anne: "She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew olderthe natural sequel of an unnatural beginning." She dwells frequently upon the beauty and the melancholy of nature. She talks of the "influence so sweet and so sad of autumnal months in the country." She marks "the tawny leaves and withered hedges."
"One docs not love a place the less because one has suffered in it," she observes. But it is not only in a new sensibility to nature that we detect the change.
Her attitude to life itself is altered. She is seeing it, for the greater part of the book, through the eyes of a woman who, unhappy herself, has a special sympathy for the happiness and unhappiness of others, which, until the very end, she is forced to comment upon in silence. Therefore the observation is less of facts and more of feelings than is usual. There is an expressed emotion in the scene at the concert and in the famous talk about woman's constancy which proves not merely the biographical fact that Jane Austen had loved, but the aesthetic fact that she was no longer afraid to say so. Experience, when it was of a serious kind, had to sink very deep, and to be thoroughly disinfected by the passage of time, before she allowed herself to deal with it in fiction. But now, in 1817, she was ready. Outwardly, too, in her circumstances, a change was imminent. Her fame had grown very slowly. "I doubt," wrote Mr. Austen Leigh, "whether it would be possible to mention any other author of note whose personal obscurity was so complete." Had she lived a few more years only, all that would have been altered. ....

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 in the aesthetic whole.’ [1]
Although by 1909 Fry had already abandoned the ‘idea of likeness to Nature, of correctness or incorrectness as a test’ – he had just discovered Cézanne – he was, as he himself says, ‘still obsessed by ideas about the content of a work of art’, for he still felt that the ‘aesthetic whole’ somehow reflected ‘the emotions of life’. To rid himself of that ‘obsession’ was the main preoccupation of his later thought.
‘I want to find out what the function of content is,’ he wrote in 1913 to G. L. Dickinson, ‘and am developing a theory... that it is merely directive of form and that all the essential aesthetic quality has to do with pure form. It’s horribly difficult to analyse out of all the complex feelings just this one peculiar feeling, but I think that in proportion as poetry becomes more intense the content is entirely remade by the form and has no separate value at all. You see the sense of poetry is analogous to the things represented in painting. I admit that there is also a queer hybrid art of sense and illustration, but it can only arouse particular and definitely conditioned emotions, whereas the emotions of music and pure painting and poetry when it approaches purity are really free abstract and universal.’ [2]
Consequently, when Fry restated his theory in 1920 (essay ‘Retrospect’ in Vision and Design), he discarded the emotions of life and confined aesthetic feeling to what Clive Bell had meanwhile called ‘significant form’. His final views are expressed in a letter which he wrote in 1924 to the Poet Laureate Robert Bridges:
‘I very early became convinced that our emotions before works of art were of many kinds and that we failed as a rule to distinguish the nature of the mixture and I set to work by introspection to discover what the different elements of these compound emotions might be and to try to get at the most constant, unchanging, and therefore I suppose fundamental emotion. I found that this “constant” had to do always with the contemplation of form... It also seemed to me that the emotions resulting from the contemplation of form were more universal (less particularized and coloured by the individual history), more profound and more significant spiritually than any of the emotions which had to do with life... I therefore assume that the contemplation of form is a peculiarly important spiritual exercise...’ [3]
This passage is particularly revealing, first, because it emphasizes the goal to which Fry’s aesthetic development was inevitably leading him – he himself admitted that any attempt he might make to explain ‘significant’ form would land him ‘in the depths of mysticism’ – and secondly because it illustrates his peculiar method of analysis. Conscious that works of art inspire different kinds of emotion, he attempts, by introspection, to isolate one specific emotion which is common to all these various compounds, on the assumption that this ‘constant’ factor would reveal the ‘substance’, the irreducible atom, so to speak, of aesthetic experience. In adopting this method of analysis Fry necessarily assumes that a given factor will have aesthetic significance in proportion as it is generalized, lacking in individuality, and constant. It will be necessary at a later stage to enquire whether this assumption is valid in so individual, so richly varied and so constantly changing a sphere as art. For the moment let us note that it entails a great impoverishment: by restricting aesthetic feeling to ‘pure’ form, i.e. to form divorced and abstracted from that which it forms, Fry excluded everything which art was ever intended to convey to mankind. The same applies to the theories put forward by Fry’s successors: those who regard art as an emanation of the ‘sub-conscious’ exclude the whole vast realm of human consciousness; while the advocates of a biological ‘sense of form’ reduce art to the level of a pre-human, because pre-social, reflex.

These theories are not, however, the products of perverse reasoning – they merely reflect what has actually been happening in English art since about 1910. To quote Fry’s own account, the discussion stimulated by the appearance of ‘post-impressionism’ revealed ‘that some artists who were peculiarly sensitive to the formal relations of works of art... had almost no sense of the emotions’ of life which he had supposed them to convey. Hence his attempt, after say 1912, to disentangle the ‘purely aesthetic’ elements from their accompanying ‘accessories’ was in fact an attempt to explain the indifference of certain artists to the problems of life and the growing isolation of art from all other spheres of existence.

Though greatly accentuated since the beginning of the twentieth century, this isolation of the artists was not new, and in Fry’s case, too, the tendency of divorcing art from life was already implicit in his theory of 1909. It is one of the main points of the Essay in Aesthetics that art has nothing whatever to do with morals. Fry admits that art is communication, i.e. essentially social. Nevertheless, he bases his analysis exclusively on what he takes to be the psychology of the individual, or rather of ‘man’ in the abstract. Whereas in ordinary life perception is followed by responsive action – the sight of a bull rushing towards us makes us turn to instant flight – Fry claims that artistic perception is of the kind we experience when we see the bull, not in the flesh, but on the screen of a cinema: we enjoy the emotion of fear because we need not act upon it. Action implies moral responsibility. Artistic contemplation, being removed from action, is thereby released from all moral ties. To quote his own words:
‘Art, then, is an expression and a stimulus of the imaginative life, which is separated from actual life by the absence of responsive action. Now this responsive action implies in actual life moral responsibility. In art we have no such moral responsibility – it presents a life freed from the binding necessities of our actual existence ... Morality appreciates emotion by the standard of resultant action, art appreciates emotion in and for itself.’ [4]
Though brilliant and plausible, this argument will not bear examination. In the first place, moral responsibility only begins where the type of action Fry calls instinctive – i.e. the reflex behaviour inherited from the pre-human stage of our evolution – ends. Indeed, moral behaviour not infrequently implies the suppression of inherited responses: to act morally, when faced by a bull, I must curb my impulse of self-preservation sufficiently to help my less agile companion. In other words, the interval of reflection which Fry claims as the distinguishing feature of artistic perception, is just as essential in any behaviour that can be subjected to a moral test. [5] It is essential also in scientific perception. But who would claim that science does not lead to responsive action or that it is ‘freed from the binding necessities of our actual existence’?

Secondly, moreover, it is untrue that artistic perception itself is never followed by responsive action. If this were true, there could be no art: what else is the work of art but the creative reproduction of the artist’s perception? And in so far as he communicates the image of his perception to his fellow men, the artist is morally responsible for it. This does not mean that a work of art can always be justly valued in terms of the moral standards ruling at the time – on the contrary, one need only think of Goya’s Caprichos or of a book like The Grapes of Wrath to realize how often art has been an indictment of those standards. But it does mean that society cannot be indifferent whether a given work of art inspires by its profound insight, whether it stirs to action, whether it soothes and refreshes, or whether, on the other hand, it opiates and disrupts. And it also means that the aesthetic value of a work of art must in some way be related to the effect it produces, not merely in its own time, but as long as it survives.

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


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 being subtitled “A Biography,” Orlando is very much a novel, and as with much of Woolf’s earlier work—Jacob’s Room (1922), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To The Lighthouse (1927)—it is concerned with the disparity between the objective passage of time and subjective lived experience. “An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length,” the chatty narrator notes, “on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second. This extraordinary discrepancy between time on the clock and time in the mind is less known than it should be and deserves fuller investigation.”

Of course, by 1928 there already had been plenty of “fuller investigation” into this discrepancy. In 1889, philosopher Henri Bergson had proposed the concept of durée: an experience of time that was subjective rather than chronological. “I saw, to my great astonishment,” Bergson later wrote to William James, “that scientific time does not endure…that positive science consists essentially in the elimination of duration.”

In the wake of the Great War, theologian Paul Tillich invoked the Greek term kairos to diagnose the peculiar mood of the day. In Greek rhetoric, kairos can signify discerning and seizing the perfect moment for a rebuttal to an opponent’s argument. The word was in turn used by St. Paul throughout his epistles, referring to the precise moment when the Lord would return—time redeemed, time fulfilled, the past recaptured. Kairos, Tillich explained, expressed “the feeling of many people in central Europe after the First World War that a moment of history had appeared which was pregnant with a new understanding of the meaning of history and life…Its original meaning—the right time, the time in which something can be done—must be contrasted with chronos, measured time or clock time. The former is qualitative, the latter quantitative.”

This need for a method to oppose chronological time—quantitative, measured, and objective—was overwhelming: philosophers and writers drew on science and religion in search of ways to describe the time between moments, and the great writers of modernism took these ideas and embedded them in literary masterpieces, teasing out articulations of time based not on objective measurements but on subjective experience. A rough beast slouched forth from the horrors of the Somme; soldiers limping home were trapped in the terror of their own recent memories, as though time had stopped forever. Philosophers and industrialists gazed so far into the future that the present evaporated before them. It was clear to anyone paying attention that a single, monolithic definition of time would not provide an acceptable clock.

The tension between these two times was a singular preoccupation, if not the preoccupation,of modernist literature. Invariably, it was the time on the clock that was seen as the oppressor: chronological time was seen as artificial, contorting experience into an arbitrary, quantifiable landscape. Already in Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf had written of the authoritarian power of the clock:
Shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing, the clocks of Harley Street nibbled at the June day, counseled submission, upheld authority, and pointed out in chorus the supreme advantages of a sense of proportion, until the mound of time was so far diminished that a commercial clock, suspended above a shop in Oxford Street, announced, genially and fraternally, as if it were a pleasure to Messrs. Rigby and Lowndes to give the information gratis, that it was half-past one.
Mrs. Dalloway is a novel that, like Ulysses, takes place over a single day, the ordinary diurnal rhythm played against the seemingly infinite unspooling of memory. Its structure poses memory as a counterbalance to the sense of time as purely a matter of minutes and seconds, substituting kairos for the regular passage of hours. What matters is the pregnant pause, the story that elapses between the tick and the tock. The exemplars of modernist literature had all adhered to this clock, most famously Marcel Proust’s three-thousand page In Search of Lost Time, a book contained within two bites of a madeleine.

But what if that pregnant pause were not a lifetime of memories, but rather an entire span of centuries? With Orlando, time of the mind becomes historical; Orlando’s vampiric longevity is a challenge to readers to think of the self as constructed over hundreds of years. Woolf doesn’t wish to explore the tension between chronos and kairos; she would rather annihilate it. “Yet I am now & then haunted by some semi mystic very profound life of a woman, which shall all be told on one occasion,” she wrote in her diary in the fall of 1926, “& time shall be utterly obliterated; future shall somehow blossom out of the past. One incident—say the fall of a flower—might contain it. My theory being that the actual event practically does not exist—nor time either.”

Orlando was the product, first and foremost, of Woolf’s relationship with Vita Sackville-West. Sackville-West was a novelist who moved in the same circles as Woolf; perhaps more intriguingly, she was nobility, the daughter of the third Baron Sackville, and she carried with her an aristocratic flair that captivated Woolf. Shortly after their first meeting, Woolf wrote in her diary, “Snob as I am, I trace her passions 500 years back, & they become romantic to me, like old yellow wine.” Their friendship flowered and by the end of 1925 had become sexual, tolerated by both of their husbands. (Sackville-West’s husband, Harold Nicolson, himself had homosexual affairs.) Then, in the fall of 1927, Woolf realized that Sackville-West could embody the “semi mystic very profound life of a woman” that had been haunting her; and on October 5 the idea for the new book crystallized in her, “a biography beginning in the year 1500 & continuing to the present day, called Orlando: Vita; only with a change about from one sex to another.” 

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Sunday, 28 December 2014

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

William Butler Yeats and Wife Georgie
William Butler Yeats and his wife Georgie in the late 1920s. Photograph: Bettmann/CORBIS
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 have an affair with Pound. A month later, when Yeats proposes to you, you accept. At 11:20 in the morning on October 20, 1917, you are married in the Harrow Road Registry Office; the witnesses are Pound and your mother.
“I think [this] girl both friendly, serviceable & very able,” writes Yeats to an old friend. “She is under the glamour of a great man 30 years older than herself & with a talent for love-making,” reports your mother. Honeymooning in the Ashdown Forest Hotel in Sussex, you cast a horary (an astrological chart designed to answer a particular question at a particular place and time). “Per dimandera [domandare] perche noi siamo infelice,” you write in a language you know your husband does not understand—“to ask why we are unhappy.” The discombobulated Yeats is writing letters to Iseult; he is writing poems: “O but her heart would break to learn my thoughts are far away.” A decade later, now the mother of two young children, the wife of a Nobel Prize–winning poet, you write “burn this when read” at the top of a letter to a close friend: “had I known that all this might happen I should certainly never have had a family!”
This is one way of describing the life of Bertha Georgie Hyde Lees Yeats, the fascinating woman who devoted her entire adult life to the needs and, after his death, reputation of an indisputably great poet, a poet with whose poems (qua poems) we are only beginning to come to terms, despite the poet’s prominent place in the canon. “The intellect of man is forced to choose/Perfection of the life, or of the work,” wrote Yeats in “The Choice,” and it would seem that, for him, the choice was clear. He could be an arch, distant father (“Who is it you are looking for?” he once asked his daughter when meeting her at the family gate), a husband expert at affecting incompetence at simple everyday tasks so that his purchase on greatness might be presumed. Once, when worried about his eyesight, George sent him a new lamp. “What oil do I put in it?” he asked. “The lamp of course consumes lamp oil,” she wrote back. “You could surely not have imagined that it demanded Sanctuary oil, or olive oil?” Easily, as George knew well, her husband could have imagined that it demanded Sanctuary oil. When asked how it felt to “live with a genius,” George replied, “Oh alright, I never notice.” Her devotion did not wobble, but she was no one’s fool.
There is something wrong, something too ingeniously self-forgiving, about Yeats’s distinction between perfection of the life and perfection of the work. Yeats was a formidable guy; he lived in a medieval tower, he talked with dead people, he wrote some of the most beautiful lyric poems in the language. But nobody has a perfect life. Every life is enriched by disappointment, driven by compromise, and to suggest that one might have been a good person if only one had not been a great artist is to diminish the integrity of art. It is to suggest that art is not fueled by human experience—from the aesthetic to the political to the apocalyptic—but somehow transpires beside or beyond it. Ann Saddlemyer’s recently published edition of the lifelong correspondence between Willy and George allows us to witness the complexities of life and art entwined.
Saddlemyer is a meticulous scholar of a kind now increasingly rare. She has published crucial editions of the plays of Yeats’s close friends J.M. Synge and Augusta Gregory; she has also edited Synge’s letters. Unlike most meticulous editors, however, Saddlemyer is also an elegant writer with a keen sense of proportion. Her biography of George Yeats, Becoming George: The Life of Mrs. W.B. Yeats, published in 2002, is uncommonly readable, marked by an acuity of emotional and literary insight lacking in the otherwise distinguished standard biography of Yeats himself (by the historian Roy Foster). It’s safe to say that Saddlemyer’s biography, to which the Yeats family letters are crucial, is more fun to read than the letters themselves.
This is in some ways inevitable. Willy and George were often separated by professional duties, but the distance and the duration were usually short. Their letters consequently tend to skip the leisurely evocations of daily life one associates with a rich correspondence, jumping quickly to the pressing matters of the moment—the sickness of a child (Anne and Michael Yeats were often seriously ill), the restoration of Ballylee (the tower the Yeats family sometimes called home), a question about the Abbey Theatre (of which Yeats was a director), the fate of the Cuala Press (which was haphazardly run by Yeats’s sisters, the aptly named Lily and Lolly, who lived together but despised each other).
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New Selected Journals, 1939-1995 by Stephen Spender

Stephen Spender (1938) byWyndham Lewis 
"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 Orators to Spender in 1932, WH Auden wrote: “Private faces in public places / Are wiser and nicer / Than public faces in private places.” These famous lines have been adopted by Lara Feigel in her Introduction to Spender’s New Selected Journals, 1939-1995. The book, she writes, “is intended partly to restore to Spender the private face of the poet, the lover, the husband and the father. For the first time, readers have access to Spender’s intimate thoughts about his marriage, his children, his love affairs and his impending death.”
This access has undoubtedly been eased by the death of Spender’s ferociously protective widow – although the title page asserts that the journals have been edited “with Natasha Spender”. This must, to say the least of it, have been an interesting process, and knowing looks were exchanged among the audience at the book’s launch when Feigel spoke of the late Lady Spender’s enthusiasm for the project. The support of the Spenders’ son, Matthew, is not in doubt: he has long been waging a campaign for openness and is currently writing his own memoir of his father.
It required both stamina and skill to juggle, as Spender did, the conflicting demands of being a poet, a critic and academic, a public intellectual, a co-founder and co-editor of two leading literary magazines (Horizon, 1940-49 and Encounter, 1953-67), and a husband and father who enjoyed numerous homosexual relationships.
This new book, which supplements rather than supplants the excellent selection Spender himself edited in 1985, covers all aspects of its author’s crowded life. In total, his journals run to almost a million words, of which around a quarter are published here.
While the selection is nicely balanced between the public and the private, there are some curious gaps. Readers will be disappointed to find no entries between December 1965 and June 1972, a period which includes the still controversial episode in which allegations that Encounter was indirectly sponsored by the CIA led to Spender’s resignation from the magazine. If, as seems unlikely, Spender kept no journal during this period, the editors neglect to say so.
Other gaps include a Japanese journal mentioned at the book’s launch, which is omitted in its entirety but presumably records Spender’s second visit to that country in 1958 and his entanglement there with a Japanese student, about which he wrote long, agonised letters to Christopher Isherwood. Also missing is a journal Spender kept between March and July 1982, which includes a marvellously funny retrospective account of his troubled relationship with John Lehmann.
The Lehmann entry would have nicely complemented and extended the sharply observant passages in the present volume about Isherwood, W H Auden and Cyril Connolly. Spender had a wide circle of acquaintance among writers, painters, musicians, philosophers and politicians, and to some extent his journals are a portrait of an age seen through its personalities, with particularly illuminating portraits of, among others, C Day Lewis, J R Ackerley, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Igor Stravinsky, Isaiah Berlin, A J Ayer, Arthur Schlesinger Jr and Hugh Gaitskell. Working both for Unesco and as a frequent literary ambassador, Spender travelled extensively and one has a sense here, now lost amid the frenetic and commercial literary-festival industry, of genuine cultural exchange between writers from different countries. Not that every congress was worthwhile, and Spender writes splendidly unillusioned accounts of the sheer boredom of some of these events and the rampant egotism of some of the participants.
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Saturday, 27 December 2014

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, but you can’t get back to it; there is a glimpse in dreams of those peacock lawns and fountains, but you’re fenced out, and each morning you wake up to the loss over again.
Grief is like fear in the way it gnaws the gut. Your mind is on a short tether, turning round and round. You fear to focus on your grief but cannot concentrate on anything else. You look with incredulity at those going about their ordinary lives. There is a gulf between you and them, as if you had been stranded on an island for lepers; indeed, Lewis wonders whether a grieving person should be put in isolation like a leper, to avoid the awkwardness of encounters with the unbereaved, who don’t know what to say and, though they feel goodwill, exhibit something like shame.
Lewis, now most celebrated as a writer for children, was also one of the great Christian thinkers of the last century. His memoir Surprised by Joy, written before his marriage, is an absorbing account of childhood and a luminous description of his conversion experience. In 1956 he was lured out of his donnish bachelor state by Joy Davidman, an American poet. By his marriage he became stepfather to two boys. His life flowered. But four years later Joy died of cancer.
Born in 1898, educated at a public school, an officer in the first world war, an intellectual, a man who (by his own account) feared the collective and feared the feminine, Lewis found himself plunged into an experience against which intellect could not defend him, a process that is as common as the air we breathe, a process that involves a feminine dissolution into “pathos and tears”.
In his memoir he recalls the death of his mother when he was a small boy. “Grief was overwhelmed by terror” at the sight of her corpse, and he was not helped to mourn, his natural grief subsumed into the violent reactions of adults. The work of mourning, if not performed when it is due, seems to be stored up for us, often for many years. It compounds and complicates our later griefs. The loss of his wife plunged Lewis into a crisis of faith.
Why had she been taken away, when his marriage had made him a more complete human being? As a theologian he would come to credit God with some subtlety, but as a man he must have felt he had been thrown back into the classroom at his prep school, with its routinely hellish regime of arbitrary beatings. He soon saw that mourning kicks away the props we rely on. It confiscates our cognitive assets and undermines our rationality. It frequently undermines any religious faith we may have, and did so in this case. In his 1940 book The Problem of Pain, Lewis tackled what Muriel Spark, in the title of a novel, called The Only Problem: if God is good, why does he permit the innocent to suffer? Lewis had worked over the ground in theory. After his wife’s death he had to do the work again, this time in raw dismay: dismay not only at the terrible event itself, but at his reaction to it. Unless his faith in the afterlife is childish and literal, the pain of loss is often intensified for a believer, because he feels angry with his god and feels shame and guilt about that anger; this being so, you wonder how the idea began, that religion is a consolation.
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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 school by gaining academic distinction.
Often, this worked, and the Wilkeses might have had reason to congratulate themselves, in the early years of World War I, for having admitted on reduced terms the sons of Major Matthew Connolly, a retired army officer, and of Richard Blair, a former civil servant in the Opium Department of the government of India. The two boys, Cyril and Eric, each won the Harrow Prize (a nationwide history competition), and then took scholarships to Eton in successive years. The Wilkeses must have thought their investments had paid off, the accounts balanced and closed.
But Englishmen of a certain class—especially those sent away to boarding schools—tend toward obsessive memory, looking back on those immured years as either an expulsion from the familial Eden and a traumatic introduction to the concept of alien power, or else as the opposite, a golden and protected spell of time before life’s realities intrude. And so, just as World War II was about to begin, the Wilkeses, much to their distaste, became a matter of public discussion and argument.
Major Connolly’s boy, young Cyril—renamed “Tim” at St. Cyprian’s, and given the school character of an Irish rebel (if a tame one)—published Enemies of Promise in 1938. While describing in some detail the harshness and cruelty of the lightly disguised “St. Wulfric’s,” Connolly also admitted that as preparatory schools went, it had been “a well run and vigorous example which did me a world of good.” Flip was “able, ambitious, temperamental and energetic.” Connolly, who leaned toward Edenic memorializing (especially about Eton), recalled the vivid pleasures of reading, natural history, and homoerotic friendship. He devoted several wistful pages to the latter subject. Connolly’s book must have felt to the Wilkeses as damaging as the fire that burned St. Cyprian’s to the ground the following year. Flip wrote him a “Dear Tim” letter about the harm he had done to “two people who did a very great deal for you,” adding that the book had “hurt my husband a lot when he was ill and easily upset.”
For the next thirty years, the debate continued about the true nature of the Wilkeses—diligent pedagogues or manipulative sadists?—and more widely about the consequences of sending small boys away from home at the age of eight: character-building or character-deforming? The photographer Cecil Beaton had been at St. Cyprian’s at the same time as Connolly and Blair, surviving by charm and the ability to placate by singing “If you were the only girl in the world, and I were the only boy.” He applauded Connolly for having “seen through all the futilities and snobbishness of Flip and her entourage.” Others joined in, like the naturalist Gavin Maxwell and the golf correspondent Henry Longhurst, a stout defender of Flip as “the most formidable, distinguished and unforgettable woman I am likely to meet in my lifetime.” Connolly later came to regret what he had written. When Flip died in August 1967 at the age of ninety-one, he turned up at her funeral, doubtless expecting sentimental reunion, the rheumy eye, and the forgiving handshake. Not a bit of it. The major’s boy had turned out a bad egg and a bounder, as literary types often do. Connolly self-pityingly noted that “nobody spoke to me.”
Yet Flip’s death merely led to the most savage and contentious contribution to the debate. Ten years after Enemies of Promise, Eric Blair, by then George Orwell, wrote his essay “Such, Such Were the Joys” as a pendant to Connolly’s account. It was never published in Britain during his lifetime, or Flip’s, for fear of libel; but it did come out in the US, in Partisan Review, in 1952. Longhurst picked up a copy of the magazine in Honolulu and was “so shocked that I have never read it again.” Forty years after it was first published in Britain, sixty years after it was composed, and now almost a century after the events it describes, “Such, Such” retains immense force, its clarity of exposition matched by its animating rage.
Orwell does not try to backdate his understanding; he retains the inchoate, emotional responses of the young Eric Blair to the system into which he had been flung. But now, as George Orwell, he is in a position to anatomize the economic and class infrastructure of St. Cyprian’s, and those hierarchies of power that the pupil would later meet in grown-up, public, political form: in this respect those schools were truly named “preparatory.”
Orwell also writes with the unhealed pain of an abused child, a pain that occasionally leaks into his prose. He describes a younger pupil—aristocratic and thus entitled to privileges denied to half-fees Blair—like this:
a wretched, drivelling little creature, almost an albino, peering upwards out of weak eyes, with a long nose at the end of which a dewdrop always seemed to be trembling.
When this boy had a choking fit at dinner,
a stream of snot ran out of his nose onto his plate in a way horrible to see. Any lesser person would have been called a dirty little beast and ordered out of the room instantly.
Orwell’s denunciatory fervor is almost counterproductive; readers may well feel sorry for the little chap whose hair color, nasal explosions, and accident of birth were none of his doing.
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Friday, 26 December 2014

The House of Edith


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 she was “Edith at her Edithest.”
Hermione Lee’s triumph lies in rendering the dynamism and integrity of this sometimes remote and always willful and stoic woman without leaving out the nuances, the soft exceptions and endearing contradictions. For instance, who would have guessed that Edith Wharton was so funny—even campy? One of her characters, a female novelist, says, “A keen sense of copyright is my nearest approach to an emotion.” In writing about the excessive use of draperies in American houses, Wharton complains of “lingerie effects.” She kept a commonplace book and a donnée book all her life and extracted from them some of the more pointed remarks in her novels. In one manuscript she wrote, “She wore the most expensive gowns with a penitential air, as though she were under a vow of wealth.”
Wharton could be terribly snobbish. She dismissed America as a land where people ate bananas for breakfast. When one rich American lady was showing off her house and said, “And this I call my Louis Quinze room,” Edith supposedly raised her lorgnette and murmured, “Why, my dear?” In speaking of some neighbors in Lenox, Massachusetts, she said that they had “decided to have books in their library.” Once, looking at a publicity photograph of herself, she said it made her look like “a combination of a South Dakota divorcée & a magnetic healer.” Of Americans in Europe she said they were all “in the same attitude of chronic opposition to a society chronically unaware of them.”
Few biographies could have been more difficult to write. Wharton destroyed all the letters she received and begged her correspondents to destroy those she had sent them. Unfortunately almost all cooperated, but her caddish lover Morton Fullerton kept her letters, which were written with a passion no one had suspected. She wrote a memoir, A Backward Glance, but she was extremely reticent in it. She mentioned few of her close friends, nothing about her lover, little about her husband or divorce. But the problem of writing about Wharton is not only that she covered her traces. Another challenge arises from the fact that she lived such a big life, went so many places, knew so many people, and was such an ambitious culture vulture. Biography is usually the revenge of little people on big people (the application of the biographer’s petit bourgeois campus morality, for instance, to uncautious international high flyers), but Lee is subtle and big-hearted enough to understand her subject.
Lee isn’t alarmed by the fact that toward the end of her life Wharton had twenty-two servants in two houses; at the same time she refuses to turn Wharton into a sort of American duchess, which is what Percy Lubbock did in his hostile, pioneering biography. Wharton was obviously very fair and generous to her staff; they stayed loyal to her over the years and she gave them pensions when they retired.
Lee is careful to point out that Wharton could be anti-Semitic but in the conventional way characteristic of her class and epoch—and she is less virulent in her novels than in her letters (though there is a caricatured Jew, Rosedale, in The House of Mirth). In a letter to Scott Fitzgerald about The Great Gatsby she complimented him for his “perfect Jew,” Gatsby’s crooked friend Meyer Wolfsheim; but she was decidedly for exonerating the Jewish scapegoat Alfred Dreyfus, whereas her earliest French friend, the novelist Paul Bourget, and most of the French and American members of her Paris circle were violently anti-Dreyfusard. In her pro-Dreyfus sentiments she was like Proust, another anti-Semite (though half-Jewish), but she refused to meet Proust precisely because she’d heard that he was snobbish to a fault. (Her social reluctance did not keep her from reading Proust and praising him in print over the years and sending Henry James the first volume of the Recherche soon after it was published.) She drifted toward Catholicism after World War I, but the attraction was as much aesthetic as devotional, and she said, “I don’t believe in God, but I believe in his saints.” This was the sort of (frivolous? honest?) comment worthy of her friend the society priest the Abbé Mugnier, who, when asked if he believed in hell, replied that he had to believe in it since it was a matter of doctrine, but that he didn’t think anyone was in it.
Lee is equally good about the novels. She points out that Wharton ignored many of the great movements and issues of her day and wrote nothing about immigration to America, industrialization, the robber barons, or the amazing technological innovations of the turn of the century. What she did write about were a host of small social questions: “How would a weekend on the Hudson differ from one in Newport or on Long Island? When did lawn tennis supersede archery as the fashionable Newport sport? Why would no one except an eccentric dream of giving a party in Newport on Cup Race Day?” Wharton also shows the rough-and-ready manners of the nouveaux riches; Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country is greedy and relentless and strangely cold. In one breathtaking passage she thinks about her son Paul, whom she has abandoned and left with his father: “It was dreadful that her little boy should be growing up far away from her, perhaps dressed in clothes she would have hated….”
Lee never reduces Wharton’s books to veiled autobiography, just as she is never reluctant to interpret them in the light of Wharton’s life. She shows how over the course of her long if late-starting career (Wharton published forty-eight titles) she returns again and again to the themes of her own life—repression, sexual hypocrisy, hidden longings. In the 1930s, at the very moment Wharton began to be seen as old-fashioned and excessively ladylike, she was simultaneously rejected by the mass-market magazines, according to Lee, for being “too shocking and grim for optimistic American post-war readers.” By reading Wharton’s entire oeuvre attentively, Lee is able to point out previously unsuspected continuities and sudden ruptures and departures. Lee devotes many pages (for my taste too many) to Wharton’s building and furnishing of houses and her ambitious gardening, and she shows how her early books The Decoration of Houses(written with Ogden Codman) and Italian Villas and Their Gardens demonstrate her concern with the “ethics of style.” For Wharton rooms and gardens were never merely pretty or convenient. “Structure conditions ornament,” she wrote with typical severity, “not ornament structure.”
The moral preoccupations of living arrangements merged into similar ethical concerns in her fiction. In this way Wharton is indisputably a descendant of Hawthorne and a niece to Henry James. But whereas James, for instance, keeps the exact nature of the contested antique pieces of furniture deliberately vague in The Spoils of Poynton(“the array of them, miles away, was complete; each piece, in its turn, was perfect to her; she could have drawn up a catalogue from memory”), Wharton is able to spell out every horror (the cabbage-rose-garlanded carpets, the looped-back yellow damask portiere) and does so with relish.
Lee isn’t reluctant to say which of Wharton’s books she likes and why. She considersThe Custom of the Country to be Wharton’s masterpiece (not the more obvious choice,The House of Mirth) and she champions the late novel The Children (1927) and states unequivocally, “Though it has its flaws, it is the most remarkable and surprising of the novels that came after The Age of Innocence.”
Lee is so immersed in Wharton’s life that she sees even the writer’s inferior novels as variations on successful themes developed elsewhere. No one today reads Wharton’sGlimpses of the Moon, for instance, but Lee makes a case for it as a way of converting the tragic situation of The House of Mirth into comedy. Wharton saw it as in the vein of Browning’s elegy for hedonism, “A Toccata of Galuppi’s,” in which the question is posed, “What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?” For Wharton’s callous young lovers, Venice was simply regarded as a place “affording exceptional opportunities for bathing and adultery.”
Even in the best of Wharton, I’d hazard, there is always something slightly trashy—notin the sex scenes, which are usually convincing and deeply felt and shockingly intimate, but in the melodramatic plot twists, as though Henry James and Wilkie Collins were always struggling over her soul. For instance, in the beginning of The Reef a penniless American ingénue, Sophy Viner, has a romantic and sexual fling in Paris with the wealthy, worldly George Darrow, and these are some of the finest pages Wharton ever wrote. Darrow has put the girl up in a luxurious hotel, her room next to his, and when she enters her room from the corridor he can picture it all:
Everything in it rose before him and pressed itself upon his vision with the same acuity of distinctness as the objects surrounding him. A step sounded on the floor, and he knew which way the step was directed, what pieces of furniture it had to skirt, where it would probably pause, and what was likely to arrest it. He heard another sound and recognized it as that of a wet umbrella placed in the black marble jamb of the chimney-piece, against the hearth. He caught a creak of the hinge, and instantly differentiated it as that of the wardrobe against the opposite wall….
This is the language of desire, hallucinatory and precise.
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‘At last I am alone’, from the diary of Dora Carrington

Self-Portrait,1910

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 across the path past the dwarf pine past the stumps, and then climb the ha-ha and come across the lawn. Our jokes have gone for ever. There is nobody now to make ‘disçerattas’ with, to laugh with over particular words. To discuss the difficulties of love, to read Ibsen in the evening. And to play cards when we were too ‘dim’ for reading. These mouring [sic] sentinels that we arranged so carefully. The shiftings to get the new rose Corneille in the best position. They will go, and the beauty of our library ‘will be over’. – I feel as if I was in a dream, almost unconscious, so much of me was in you.
And I thought as I threw the rubbish on the bonfire, ‘So that’s the end of his spectacles. Those spectacles that have been his companion all these years. Burnt in a heap of leaves.’ And those vests the ‘bodily companions’ of his days now are worn by a carter in the fields. In a few years what will be left of him? A few books on some shelves, but the intimate things that I loved, all gone.
And soon even the people who knew his pale thin hands and the texture of his thick shiny hair, and grisly beard, they will be dead and all remembrance of him will vanish. I watched the gap close over others but for Lytton one couldn’t have believed (because one did not believe it was ever possible) that the world would go on the same.
Source: Advances

Thursday, 25 December 2014

William Cowper: Epitaph on a Hare



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-rolling moons
     He thus saw steal away,
Dozing out his idle noons,
     And ev'ry night at play.

I kept him for his humour's sake,
     For he would oft beguile
My heart of thoughts that made it ache,
     And force me to a smile.

But now, beneath this walnut-shade
     He finds his long, last home,
And waits in snug concealment laid,
     'Till gentler Puss shall come.

He, still more aged, feels the shocks
     From which no care can save,
And, partner once of Tiney's box,
     Must soon partake his grave.

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

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 ‘harshing’ against the kerbstone.) Effortlessly, Seamus Heaney gives us ‘The song of the tubular steel gate in the dark/As he pulls it to.’ As Bloom says in Ulysses, ‘Everything speaks in its own way. Sllt.’ Sllt is the noise made by a paper-slitting machine.
Heaney’s genius is an amalgam of moral complexity and the simple make-over of reality to his readers. He can describe things. He can describe things in a phrase, spray them with fixative — if not Ustinov’s ringing of a bell, then the sound a football makes when kicked — ‘it thumped/but it sang too,/a kind of dry, ringing/foreclosure of sound.’ Remember?
These lines are not included in New Selected Poems 1988–2013, but ‘A rowan like a lipsticked girl’ is, with its ready pleasure, its obvious likeness, like one of those Picasso miracles of simplification made from a few fluent lines. Description, if it is to be successful, can’t be a wordy wrangle, arguing for its accuracy and sounding increasingly desperate. It should be as swift as turning over a card — an ace. Poets have to avoid an infinity of shuffling, cutting, shuffling and dealing. This ability is fundamental. In the words of Matthew Arnold’s Culture and AnarchyPorro unum est necessarium: ‘but one thing is needful.’ Not the only necessary gift, of course — an ear, a feel for syllables and rhythm, for verbal music, are further requirements — but without it, poetry is likely to be an endless marathon of ambiguity, a joyless game of patience for adepts. The Cambridge School of Poetry, in fact, turning its back on pleasure, snubbing the audience, withholding the endorphins, proffering perpetual difficulty, disparaging ‘descriptive decadence’.
The pleasures of the flesh aren’t always sensual. They can be pleasurable because they are accurate and irrefutable. This is Heaney helping his father to the bathroom in the last week of his life: ‘my right arm/Taking the webby weight of his underarm.’ And this is the young, yearning, lovesick Heaney mesmerised by an older woman: ‘I could see the vaccination mark/stretched on your upper arm.’ Heaney’s rapt astonishment is transferred to a slow goods train ‘full of big-eyed cattle’.
Ted Hughes thought of poetry as a less literal way of capturing the animals that fascinated him as a boy. Heaney records things as they come, democratically, unaware of hierarchy: the bevel left in his hair by a policeman’s hat; ‘Yippee-i-ay,/Sang “The Riders of the Range”’; ‘Slim Whitman’s wavering tenor amplified/Above sparking dodgems’. In ‘Seeing Things’, there is ‘a boat that dipped and shilly-shallied’ when people stepped into it; in Weighing In’, a weighbridge ‘well-adjusted, freshly greased’ on which ‘everything trembled, flowed with give and take’. Both bang on target, like Heaney’s target: ‘the bullet’s song/So effortlessly at my fingertip,/The target’s single shocking little jerk.’ Heaney can even manage a central-heating boiler: ‘Now the oil-fired heating boiler comes to life/Abruptly, drowsily, like the timed collapse/Of a sawn-down tree…’ Captured and captivating. Somehow, you can’t imagine Matthew Arnold admitting this disreputable fact into ‘Dover Beach’.
Poetry is exclusive, naturally self-culling, fastidious, over-fastidious. One of Heaney’s ‘Settings’ in Seeing Things begins with Yeats’s lofty remark that ‘To those who see spirits, human skin/For a long time afterwards appears most coarse.’ Heaney then describes a bus with one other passenger — a boy bound for Vietnam: ‘He could have been one of the newly dead come back,/ Unsurprisable but still disappointed,/Having to bear his farmboy self again,/His shaving cuts, his otherworldly brow.’ A drab but powerful pathos. The wordplay here — on ‘otherworldly’ meaning innocent, naïve and also from the spirit world — is as swift, as economical, as telling as the shaving cuts and their outrun risk of bathos.
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