Monday, 31 October 2016


This glorious autumn day - warm sun after early mist - is (as well as All Hallows' Eve) the birthday of John Keats (born 1795). Here he is, on another autumn day in 1819, writing to his friend Richard Woodhouse, and suddenly slipping into something very familiar, and beautiful...

'I left Town on Wednesday - determined to be in a hurry. You don't eat travelling - you're wrong - beef - beef - I like the look of a sign. The Coachman's face says eat, eat, eat. I never feel more contemptible than when I am sitting by a goodlooking coachman. One is nothing - Perhaps I eat to persuade myself I am somebody. You must be when slice after slice - but it wont do - the Coachman nibbles a bit of bread - he's favour'd - he's had a Call - a Hercules Methodist - Does he live by bread alone? O that I were a Stage Manager - perhaps that's as old as 'doubling the Cape'. "How are ye old 'un? hey! why don't 'e speak?' O that I had so sweet a Breast to sing as the Coachman hath! I'd give a penny for his Whistle - and bow to the Girls on the road - Bow - nonsense - 'tis a nameless graceful slang action. Its effect on the women suited to it must be delightful. It touches 'em in the ribs - en passant - very off hand - very fine - Sed thongum formosa vale vale inquit Heigh ho la! You like Poetry better - so you shall have some I was going to give Reynolds.
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom friend of the maturing sun..

Remind yourself of the whole of the great ode here. It is always worth rereading.

Sunday, 30 October 2016


Here (with a tip of the hat to Mrs N) is a little Sunday morning music...
Embedded in this Rolling Stone piece is an audio recording is a fine bit of Grateful Dead incunabula, dating back to the days when Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter were embodied as (among other things) the Hart Valley Drifters.
The musical roots of the Dead were deep indeed, and the talent pool formidable. As I get older, I become increasingly convinced of what I only fleetingly glimpsed of at the time - that the Grateful Dead in their heyday were simply the greatest band that ever was.

Thursday, 27 October 2016


You live and learn - at least, it's a good idea to carry on learning if you're going to carry on living.
 I'd always thought that Vanessa was one of those names that had been around for ever, perhaps with classical origins, maybe earlier - but no: today I learned that the name was invented by none other than Jonathan Swift. It was his nickname for Esther Vanhomrigh, the unfortunate woman who was the object his obsessive love for 17 years, until he abandoned her in favour of another Esther, Esther Johnson ('Stella'). Swift arrived at 'Vanessa' by conflating the Van from the first Esther's surname with 'Esse', a pet form of Esther.
 The name caught on, and it was only a few decades after its first appearance in print (Swift's Cadenus and Vanessa) that Linnaeus used it in naming two butterflies - Vanessa atalanta (Red Admiral) and Vanessa cardui (Painted Lady).
 Vanessa atalanta is the butterfly that haunts Nabokov's Pale Fire, associated both with John Shade's adored wife -
   'Come and be worshipped, come and be caressed,
    My dark Vanessa, crimson-barred, my blest,
    My Admirable butterfly!'
- and with his impending death. At the end of the poem, Shade looks for his wife just before catching sight of the Red Admiral that will be among the last things he sees:
   'Where are you? In the garden. I can see
    Part of your shadow near the shagbark tree.
    Somewhere horseshoes are being tossed. Click. Clunk.
    (Leaning against its lamppost like a drunk.)
    A dark Vanessa with a crimson band
    Wheels in the low sun, settles on the sand
    And shows its ink-blue wingtips flecked with white.'

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Sloe Decline

Out walking today, I noticed that there were hardly any viable sloes on the blackthorn bushes. What fruit there was looked shrivelled, leathery and, well, as good as dead. I'd noticed the same thing, to a lesser extent, in Derbyshire and in my local nature reserve (where I had that memorable encounter with a Brown Hairstreak, whose food plant is blackthorn). What is going on? I had a look online, and it's not good news - cool wet weather at the wrong time of the blackthorn year has encouraged a fungal infection known colloquially as 'plum pocket' to strike, with dire effects on the fruit (read all about it here). And this was the year I was going to try my hand at making sloe gin. Ah well...

Tuesday, 25 October 2016


Above, for your viewing pleasure, is La Ferté by Richard Parkes Bonington, a small but expansive and light-filled watercolour that hangs in the National Gallery. Bonington - born on this day in 1802 - was an artist almost too gifted for his own good: his prodigious technical facility led him to produce too much and spread himself too thinly, to the detriment of his later reputation. He was a reliably brilliant landscape and topographical painter, who was equally adept at watercolour and oil (and his own hybrid medium of watercolour mixed with gouache and gum).
 English-born (in Nottinghamshire), Bonington moved with his family to France at the age of 14, and was soon establishing himself as an artist to watch. Oddly, he learnt the English watercolour technique (à la Girtin) from a French teacher, and that technique was to be his great gift to French art. The French, notably Delacroix, rated him highly from the start, and he won a gold medal at the Paris Salon at the age of 22. Sadly, he died of tuberculosis just four years later.
 After his death, Delacroix wrote that 'no one in the modern school, and perhaps even before, has possessed that lightness of touch which, especially in watercolours, makes his work a kind of diamond that flatters and ravishes the eye...' That diamond-like quality, and that wonderful lightness of touch, are gloriously evident in La Ferté . Next time you're in the National Gallery, do seek it out.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Wows Unavoidable: The Montagu Monuments

Here's a coincidence and a half. When I was in the V&A the other day, making my way to the Opus Anglicanum exhibition [see below], I spotted a couple of small-scale models for church monuments by Roubiliac. They looked interesting, and I made a mental note of the monuments' whereabouts, in a place called Warkton in Northamptonshire. The next day, my Derbyshire cousin (who knew nothing of this brief encounter in the V&A) forwarded to me an account of a restoration project that had been sent to her by a friend with an interest in such things. It was the restoration of the Roubiliac monuments and two others, all to members of the Montagu family, in the church of St Edmund, Warkton.
 Clearly this was a sign, so on Saturday the cousin and I duly set off across three county boundaries to see for ourselves these remarkable monuments in their newly restored condition. They occupy the custom-built chancel of the parish church of a small, pretty (and publess) village northeast of Kettering, where they look entirely out of place, fabulously grandiose - and utterly stunning. There is no other word for the concussing impact of all that sparkling white marble, flooded in clear light from the huge east window. Involuntary 'Wow!'s are unavoidable. In art-historical terms, this is a collection of monuments of international importance, and there is nothing else like it in any English church.
 The two Roubiliac monuments whose models I had seen are to John, 2nd Duke of Montagu (d.1749), and Lady Mary Churchill, Duchess of Montagu (d.1751). Lady Mary is figured in the first monument as the grieving widow, her anguished face upturned to a medallion portrait of the Duke.
The pose is, of course, mannered, but the carving of the dress, the right hand and the Duke's various honours laid out for all to see is quite exquisite.
To the right of the monument, the figure of Charity holds up the medallion portrait of the great man, while one of three children/putti (possibly representing the Montagus' three lost children) sheds a tear. Spilling out of the body of the monument are cannon and shot and other martial items emblematic of Montagu's role as the 18th-century equivalent of Minister of Defence.
 The other Roubiliac monument is every bit as much a bravura display of the sculptor's art, but is made to a rather more artificial scheme. The muse Clotho spins out the thread of life, only for it to be cut by the shears of Atropos (her left hand resting on a skull, along with Clotho's right foot), to the horror of an onlooking Lachesis. Meanwhile two putti are busy adorning Mary's memorial urn.

As if these two stunning monuments were not enough, there's a third, equally brilliant but in a different manner, by another expatriate foreigner, the Dutchman Peter Mathias Van Gelder. He worked with Robert Adam, and it shows in the design of the niche in which the monument stands, and in the neoclassical style of the sculpture. It commemorates Lady Mary Montagu, Duchess of Montagu, and represents her care for distressed women, widows and orphans. The figures are quite beautifully realised, especially the angel who bends over the grieving woman and points heavenward.

The fourth and latest memorial of the quartet, sculpted by the Scotsman Thomas Campbell, is the simplest in design and the least impressive in effect - an anticlimax after the others, but it hardly matters. The Montagu monuments are a national treasure, a wonder of England. If you find yourself anywhere nearby, make your way to Warkton and be amazed (but telephone the churchwarden first, as the church is often closed in the winter months).
 What the Montagu monuments lack - apart from Christian content (only present in the last) - is true emotional impact, a real sense of grief. The 18th century was not too strong on this aspect of monumental art, but the Victorian period certainly was, and a monument from the 1850s that we came across in the little Derbyshire church of St Katherine, Rowsley (neo-Norman, by Salvin junior) was genuinely moving as well as being beautifully sculpted. It commemorates Lady John Manners and her daughter, who died soon after birth, followed within a fortnight by her mother. The work of a Scottish sculptor, William Calder Marshall, it deserves to be better known.

Friday, 21 October 2016


I am up in Derbyshire just now (what, again? Yes, again). But meanwhile a piece by me about Sir John Soane's Museum is up on the website of Pooky, interiors and lighting mavens extraordinaire.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016


Your starter for ten. What do all these words have in common?

ambidextrous, antediluvian, analogous, approximate, ascetic, anomalous,
carnivorous, coexistence, coma, compensate, computer, cryptography, cylindrical,
disruption, electricity, exhaustion, ferocious, follicle, generator, gymnastic,
hallucination, herbaceous, holocaust, insecurity, indigenous, jocularity,
literary, locomotion, medical, migrant, mucous, prairie, prostate, polarity,
precocious, pubescent, 
suicide, therapeutic, ulterior, ultimate, veterinarian.

Rather amazingly, every one of them was coined by Sir Thomas Browne, who was born on this day in 1605 and died, with exemplary symmetry, on the same day in 1682. Browne has, indeed, a total of 775 entries in the OED for first use of a word - not all of them as useful, or as lasting, as those above. Even if he had not written his great works - Hydriotaphia (Urn Burial), Religio Medici and the vast and strange Pseudodoxia Epidemica (Vulgar Errors) - he would have earned some fame in the world of words.
Sir Thomas was also, very probably, the first man to say 'I am the happiest man alive.' And, from what we know of his life and character and can adduce from his portrait, it seems likely to have been true.

Monday, 17 October 2016

English Beauty

Today I thought I'd drop in on the V&A to take a look at the Opus Anglicanum exhibition.
 Opus Anglicanum - English work - is the name given to the extraordinarily high-quality embroidery that was produced in this country from the 12th to the 15th century and was in demand all over Europe and beyond. I wasn't expecting this exhibition to detain me long, but I thought I'd go along as there's not likely to be another on such a scale for many years - these pieces are extremely delicate and rare and seldom allowed to travel. As things turned out, I spent the best part of an hour and half exploring Opus Anglicanum.
 The thing is, these pieces - especially the church vestments - are just so beautiful. In design, drawing, colour and composition they are way beyond anything being done in painting, at least in this country - and it is all achieved with fantastically delicate and intricate stitching of coloured silks and gold and silver thread. The first exhibit you see, the Bologna Cope, is an absolute stunner, and in a wonderful state of preservation, considering it's 700 years old. Each panel is a little masterpiece, every detail is full of life (that's an incidental angel below) - it's altogether astonishing. And there is  more to come, of comparable quality - copes, chasubles, orphreys, dalmatics (it pays to increase your word power...). There's a cope from the Vatican, no less, another from Toledo, there's an extraordinarily beautiful Tree of Jesse from Lyon, there's even English work from as far afield as Iceland.
However closely I examined these glorious pieces I could hardly believe that such effects had been created with nothing more that stitches in cloth. The explanatory labels, with their talk of underside couching, split stitch and stem stitch, did little to enlighten me, and even a video installation showing the stitches being made was not much help. The whole thing seems all but miraculous. It's a wonderful exhibition.
 When I eventually tottered out - through the gift shop, inevitably - I was immediately hit by a blast of Whiter Shade of Pale, a symptom of the V&A's concurrent Sixties exhibition, You Say You Want a Revolution? Not me, thanks.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

From the Stacks to the Stage

Jean Alexander, the great character actress who played Hilda Ogden in Coronation Street for many years, has died, just three days after her 90th birthday. I was delighted to learn that, before she took up acting, Jean Alexander was a librarian, and she continued to be an active supporter of public libraries all her life. A librarian going into showbiz! That doesn't often happen, though I did once meet Caron Wheeler (later of Soul II Soul) when she was a Saturday library assistant. She didn't look like a career librarian to me...
 Plenty of writers were also librarians, of course - Philip Larkin, Anne Tyler, Angus Wilson, etc - but have there been any actors, other than Jean Alexander, who began as librarians? Don't say Elizabeth Taylor - it was the other one, the writer. Over to you, Dave Lull?

Friday, 14 October 2016

A Bit More Bobness

Since the Dylan Nobel brouhaha is still going on, even on this blog, let me add this suggestion of another way of looking at Dylan's lyrics. Those who claim him as a bona fide poet always seem to support their case by quoting his most obviously, showily 'poetical' songs, such wordy, image-packed epics as Desolation Row, Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands or Stuck Inside of Mobile (all damned fine, indeed wonderful songs). I would suggest that Dylan actually comes closest to writing words that can stand on their own when he stays closest to ballad form. In particular I'd opine that the album John Wesley Harding contains not only some of his most perfect songs but some of his finest words - all the best of them in simple, concentrated ballad form. I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine, I Pity the Poor Immigrant... Of course they're better when they're sung, but those words on their own pack quite a punch, don't they?

All but forgotten: Elizabeth Jenkins

Does the name Elizabeth Jenkins ring any bells? It didn't with me when it came up on my last visit to my favourite bookshop (The Bookshop in Wirksworth). The proprietor had just sold an Elizabeth Jenkins and was pleasantly surprised to find that she was still being read. Elizabeth who? I asked, and he gave me the basics - distinguished writer, up there with the other Elizabeths, Bowen and Taylor, in her day, widely read and highly regarded. And now all but forgotten.
 She had in fallen out of fashion long before she died, at the extraordinary age of 104, in 2010 (she published a memoir in her 100th year). She was a prolific writer - of biographies and historical studies as well as novels - but, held back by her diffident nature, she did little to sustain her career, shunning all publicity and self-promotion (she would have sunk like a stone in today's literary world). Happily, though, one novel of hers - The Tortoise and the Hare - was rediscovered by Carmen Callil and republished as a Virago Modern Classic. This remains the only Elizabeth Jenkins novel that is easily available. Naturally I bought it, and have now read it. It is startlingly good.
 The Tortoise and the Hare, published in 1954, relates the break-up of a marriage - a common enough subject, but handled with rare imaginative flair and originality. Imogen is the beautiful, sensitive young wife of Evelyn Gresham, a handsome, brilliant and successful barrister with a high opinion of himself and a strong sense of entitlement, neither of which his compliant wife has done anything to dent. The Greshams have plenty of money, a big house in Berkshire and a place in town, a loyal cook, and a standard of living that might make today's readers blink in disbelief. But are they happy? Of course they are not.
 The opening paragraph sets the tone - indeed it tells you almost all you need to know about these two and their relationship:
 'The sunlight of late September filled the pale, formal streets between Portland Place and Manchester Square. The sky was a burning blue yet the still air was chill. A gold chestnut fan sailed down from some unseen tree and tinkled on the pavement. In the small antique-dealer's a strong shaft of sunlight, cloudy with whirling gold-dust, penetrated the collection of red lacquer and tortoiseshell, ormolu and morocco. Imogen Gresham held a mug in her bare hands; it was a pure sky blue, decorated with a pattern of raised wheat ears, of the kind known in country districts as a 'harvester'. Her eye absorbed the colour and her fingers the moulding of the wheat. Her husband however saw that there was a chip at the base of the mug, from which cracks meandered up the inside like rivers on a map.
 'You don't want that, surely, ' he exclaimed. 'It would come apart in no time.' He turned abruptly to the window through which he could see his car standing at the kerb. Imogen with bent head slowly put down the mug...'
 Imogen has not told Evelyn that she wanted to buy something as a favour to the antique-shop's elderly proprietor, who is on his uppers. It wouldn't have cut any ice with him if she had.
 What that opening also demonstrates is Elizabeth Jenkins' ability as a descriptive writer. There are some arrestingly beautiful passages in the book, especially describing effects of light on water - the Greshams' Berkshire home is on the river, with water all around (and a key scene towards the end takes place on the Thames by Tower Bridge, after a riverboat trip). Jenkins is a writer highly attentive to surroundings, both outdoors and in. She is also highly attentive to the movements of Imogen's mind and emotions as the story unfolds and she begins to realise - but not before it is too late - what is going on between Evelyn and the wildly improbable, therefore easily dismissed, 'other woman'.
 This is Blanche Silcox, tweedy, frumpy, older than Evelyn, pillar of village society, spinster, wearer of ludicrous hats, but wealthy, capable, knowledgable in practical affairs and strong-minded. It is in those last attributes - all of which Imogen lacks - that Blanche's fatal attraction lies. With Imogen we have to watch in horror as Blanche gradually engulfs Evelyn's life, leaving no room for his wife. Imogen's passivity, her failure to force a crisis and 'have it out' with Evelyn before it is too late, is at once deeply frustrating and entirely believable. Blanche Silcox has outflanked her, defeating her on her own ground. When it becomes clear that Evelyn 'adores' Blanche and even finds her more sexually satisfying than Imogen, it is all over. Imogen cannot fight back. As a male friend remarks, bluntly summing up the debacle, 'Women who are attractive in that sort of way, it's their thing. They never think about anything else, practically. That's why they're such good value, up to a point. But an affront to that side of them, and they're beaten to the floor. It wouldn't occur to them to try to patch the thing up...'
 As it happens, there is an element of autobiography in The Tortoise and the Hare. Elizabeth Jenkins, a beautiful, sensitive woman herself, was dumped by a married lover (a man quite as distinguished and self-important as Evelyn Gresham) in favour of a rival every bit as improbable as Blanche Silcox. The novel was written in a burst of creative frenzy in the immediate aftermath, though you'd never guess that it was written at speed. Jenkins is an elegant stylist, very much in the Jane Austen mould (she wrote a well-thought-of biography of Austen and was a founder of the Jane Austen Society) - and her perception is similarly sharp and often merciless. The novel includes some extremely caustic descriptions of 'progressive' and 'arty' types, and there is a thoroughly Austenesque skewering of a featherbrained babbler along the way.
 There is a decent range of well drawn, sympathetic secondary characters, providing some necessary shifts of viewpoint away from the unhappy Imogen. She, however, remains the centre of our fascinated, sometimes appalled interest, and it is her desperate situation that draws us in. The Tortoise and the Hare is a remarkable novel, and I have no argument with those who rate it as one of the classics of postwar English fiction. I'm certainly going to keep my eyes peeled for more Elizabeth Jenkins - she is a writer far too good to be forgotten.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

His Bobness

I guess I'd better get my twopenn'orth in on the subject du jour - the sensational news that Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. This is, if nothing else, a capital joke (who said the Swedes have no sense of humour?) and I'm sure Dylan will take it in that spirit. This particular Nobel prize has long been one kind of joke, and now it is another.
  Though I yield to no man (unless he is called Bryan Appleyard) in my admiration for Dylan's work, I have not for a very long time mistaken that work for literature. Dylan is a songwriter of rare, indeed unique, genius, but songs are what he writes - not poems, not literature (pace Christopher Ricks). It's great that he has won, but probably better to think that what he's won is the Nobel Prize for Bobness. It was high time.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Dieppe Album

Dieppe was as delightfully Dieppe-like as ever - little changed, and that little mostly for the better. It was sad to see that there is now security fencing along the undercliff between the ferry port and the harbour - whether from fear of Calais-style migrant problems or of rockfall I don't know, but it can't be good news for the colony of Small Blues living there.
 Otherwise, however, what change there has been bodes well. A good deal of discreet and sensitive refurbishment has been achieved in the old town, new businesses are opening rather than old ones closing down, and there's a general sense that Dieppe is no longer a town in decline. At the same time, it retains its faded, crumbling-round-the-edges, fin-de-siècle charm, and the streets of the old town - especially the back streets - are very much as Walter Sickert would have known them (though the less said about the now hideous, once elegant Café Suisse the better).

 Among the welcome signs of renewal was the pleasant surprise of the newly restored Maison Miffant (above) on Rue d' Ecosses. For many years this historic building - the oldest house in Dieppe, one of the few that survived the unfortunate Anglo-Dutch bombardment of 1694 - stood mouldering away, becoming increasingly dilapidated, and looking ever less likely to be saved. Now, though, it has been restored and refurbished, and divided into five apartments. Admittedly it now stands surrounded by a building site (presumably a deal was cut with the property developer), but at least it's standing, and in good shape to last a few more centuries.

On the other hand, the much-needed restoration of Dieppe's two great churches - the magnificent Gothic St Jacques (as painted obsessively by Sickert, top) and the Gothic-Baroque St Remy - continues at escargot pace. Much of St Jacques - especially the East end - is in a shocking state externally, and inside netting has been stretched high up over the nave to catch bat droppings, dead bats and anything else that might fall from the roof. Things are no better at St Remy (where the cheery Baroque head above adorns the North wall), but the Gothic East end was restored some years ago and looks splendid.

Outside the East end of St Remy stands this moving little memorial to two Canadian soldiers on the spot where they fell on 19 August 1942, a date that remains firmly embedded in Dieppe's memory. It was on that day that the catastrophic Dieppe Raid took place, a seaborne assault that left the beaches and the town strewn with dead and wounded soldiers, mostly Canadian. There are memorials everywhere, many to individual regiments, and the anniversary is marked each year with due ceremony. Historically the connections between Canada - especially Quebec - and Dieppe go back to long before the creation of the modern state (indeed before the time of Willa Cather's Shadows on the Rock), and Dieppe now hosts an annual Canadian film festival, among other Canada-friendly events.

And this chap? He stands in an outbuilding of the castle/museum that looms over the town. We were a couple of weeks too late to catch an exhibition we'd already seen in Chichester - Sickert in Dieppe.


Back from Dieppe to discover that my piece on Van Gogh's 'other' flower paintings is up on the flowerful blog of the excellent Freddie's Flowers, suppliers of fine blooms to the quality. Give your eyes a treat...

Wednesday, 5 October 2016


I'm off to Dieppe (what, again? Yes, again - it's been two years now and I'm feeling withdrawal symptoms) for a few days. A bientot!

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

The Richest Artist You'd Never Heard Of

I must admit that, until catching the news of his death yesterday, I had never heard of Andrew Vicari. And yet, in monetary terms, he was one of the most successful British painters ever, at one time Britain's 18th richest person, with a net worth estimated at £92 million in 2006.
 The secret of his success was his cordial professional relationship with the Saudi royal family, who were prepared in his case to overlook Islam's traditional ban on representative art, especially portrait painting. Vicari painted the Saudi royals and romantic scenes of Bedouin life and the beauties of Riyadh, and at one point sold 125 paintings of the First Gulf War to Prince Khaled for £17 million. No fewer than three galleries in Saudi Arabia are devoted to Vicari's works, which look like the kind of things Rolf Harris might have produced if let loose in Arabia. They are certainly not lacking in, er, vigour and, er, colour. (There's a good deal of Vicari to be seen on Google Images, including a press photograph of the artist giving Harry Secombe a painting lesson.)
 This artist clearly had immense charm, and long before he began to exert it on the Saudis, he had become a popular London society portraitist and artist about town. He must also have had a good deal of native talent: the son of Italian restaurateurs in Port Talbot, he won the painting gold medal at the Wales National Eisteddfod at the age of 12 and was the youngest person ever to gain a scholarship to the Slade. There he studied under Lucian Freud, though it seems to have had little effect on his style.  When he became rich - with a studio near Nice and apartments in Monte Carlo and Riyadh - he lived high off the hog and was lavish and generous with his money, to such an extent that, by 2014, he had, almost incredibly, managed to bankrupt himself. He died in hospital in Swansea, back in his native land.
 What a life! A life worth celebrating, surely (even if the art perhaps isn't).

Monday, 3 October 2016

Time, memory, etc.

No wonder I was so startled to discover I'd been on Facebook for two years - I actually joined in February this year. But I was ready to believe it was my Facebook 'second birthday' because, when it comes to the passage of time, I'll believe pretty much anything. I'm at that stage of life when events of a few days or weeks ago can seem wrong-end-of-a-telescope remote, while things that happened last year or the year before can feel oddly fresh and recent.
 Of course, time never marches at a steady pace - it's wonderfully elastic, stretching as we look back on an eventful period full of change, contracting when nothing much has happened and we've stayed in one place. However, I guess I'm now on the foothills of old age - or my memory is. So far, this is causing me no problems and is in fact rather agreeable, part of that general progress (lapse?) of my mind from pin-sharp clarity (how long ago that seems) to something more fuzzy and benign, allusive rather than expository, 'ghostlier demarcations' - from Pre-Raphaelite to Impressionist, if you like. I can't wait for Cubism...

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Sunday Morning

It's Wallace Stevens's birthday today (born 1879), and it's Sunday morning - so, if ever there was an occasion for revisiting his Sunday Morning, this is it. It's surely one of his greatest poems, and one of the most beautiful of the 20th century. I've been rereading it for half a century and still each reading delivers something new, some subtle shift of light or colour or 'meaning' - surely the sign of a classic. And it remains radiantly, tear-makingly beautiful...


Complacencies of the peignoir, and late 
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair, 
And the green freedom of a cockatoo 
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate 
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice. 
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark 
Encroachment of that old catastrophe, 
As a calm darkens among water-lights. 
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings 
Seem things in some procession of the dead, 
Winding across wide water, without sound. 
The day is like wide water, without sound, 
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet 
Over the seas, to silent Palestine, 
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre. 


Why should she give her bounty to the dead? 
What is divinity if it can come 
Only in silent shadows and in dreams? 
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun, 
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else 
In any balm or beauty of the earth, 
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven? 
Divinity must live within herself: 
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow; 
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued 
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty 
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights; 
All pleasures and all pains, remembering 
The bough of summer and the winter branch. 
These are the measures destined for her soul. 


Jove in the clouds had his inhuman birth. 
No mother suckled him, no sweet land gave 
Large-mannered motions to his mythy mind. 
He moved among us, as a muttering king, 
Magnificent, would move among his hinds, 
Until our blood, commingling, virginal, 
With heaven, brought such requital to desire 
The very hinds discerned it, in a star. 
Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be 
The blood of paradise? And shall the earth 
Seem all of paradise that we shall know? 
The sky will be much friendlier then than now, 
A part of labor and a part of pain, 
And next in glory to enduring love, 
Not this dividing and indifferent blue. 


She says, “I am content when wakened birds, 
Before they fly, test the reality 
Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings; 
But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields 
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?” 
There is not any haunt of prophecy, 
Nor any old chimera of the grave, 
Neither the golden underground, nor isle 
Melodious, where spirits gat them home, 
Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm 
Remote on heaven’s hill, that has endured 
As April’s green endures; or will endure 
Like her remembrance of awakened birds, 
Or her desire for June and evening, tipped 
By the consummation of the swallow’s wings. 


She says, “But in contentment I still feel 
The need of some imperishable bliss.” 
Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her, 
Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams 
And our desires. Although she strews the leaves 
Of sure obliteration on our paths, 
The path sick sorrow took, the many paths 
Where triumph rang its brassy phrase, or love 
Whispered a little out of tenderness, 
She makes the willow shiver in the sun 
For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze 
Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet. 
She causes boys to pile new plums and pears 
On disregarded plate. The maidens taste 
And stray impassioned in the littering leaves. 


Is there no change of death in paradise? 
Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs 
Hang always heavy in that perfect sky, 
Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth, 
With rivers like our own that seek for seas 
They never find, the same receding shores 
That never touch with inarticulate pang? 
Why set the pear upon those river-banks 
Or spice the shores with odors of the plum? 
Alas, that they should wear our colors there, 
The silken weavings of our afternoons, 
And pick the strings of our insipid lutes! 
Death is the mother of beauty, mystical, 
Within whose burning bosom we devise 
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly. 


Supple and turbulent, a ring of men 
Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn 
Their boisterous devotion to the sun, 
Not as a god, but as a god might be, 
Naked among them, like a savage source. 
Their chant shall be a chant of paradise, 
Out of their blood, returning to the sky; 
And in their chant shall enter, voice by voice, 
The windy lake wherein their lord delights, 
The trees, like serafin, and echoing hills, 
That choir among themselves long afterward. 
They shall know well the heavenly fellowship 
Of men that perish and of summer morn. 
And whence they came and whither they shall go 
The dew upon their feet shall manifest. 


She hears, upon that water without sound, 
A voice that cries, “The tomb in Palestine 
Is not the porch of spirits lingering. 
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.” 
We live in an old chaos of the sun, 
Or old dependency of day and night, 
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free, 
Of that wide water, inescapable. 
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail 
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries; 
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness; 
And, in the isolation of the sky, 
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make 
Ambiguous undulations as they sink, 
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.