Pride and Prejudice and Popcorn

It’s twenty years since the BBC’s definitive Pride and Prejudice, which launched the stellar careers of both Mr Darcy and Colin Firth, and became for many the gold standard of period drama in general, Jane Austen in particular. And it’s ten years since the ‘other’ version: the Keira Knightley one, with Matthew McFadyen as Darcy, Judi Dench as Lady Catherine, Brenda Blethyn and Donald Sutherland as the Bennets, and a then-unknown Carey Mulligan as Kitty. For ten years, prejudice prevented me from watching it, but this year, for some reason, I swallowed my pride. 

To my own surprise, I enjoyed it. It has nothing like the thoroughness or the stateliness, the grace of the BBC’s, but it has pleasures of its own. For one thing, it’s seductively beautiful. It glows. Indoor scenes are rich as Dutch paintings. Outdoors - where a good deal of the action takes place - woods, meadows and rivers shimmer in gorgeous light. Visually, it’s utterly romantic. It’s also, like Dutch painting, appealingly realist. We see washing and cooking as well as talking and dancing. The family shares Longbourn with their farm animals; as Guardian reviewer Peter Bradshaw put it “there is hardly a footfall out of doors that does not dislodge a hen or a goose.” This is of a piece with the film’s generally heightened physicality. Bodies, energies, even hormones, prevail. The electricity between Darcy and Elizabeth is palpable, especially when they touch. At Pemberley, Lizzy visits a gallery not of portraits but of sculptures. It also goes at a breakneck pace. There's hardly a still moment in the entire film.

There are elements here that ring true that were missing from the BBC’s. Keira Knightley’s strikingly lovely Lizzy is youthful and playful, where Jennifer Ehle, lovely though she was, played the part too soberly. Mrs Bennet is softened here, more silly than shrewish. Rosemund Pike’s angelic Jane doesn’t require any suspension of disbelief. Rupert Friend’s Wickham is believably attractive, if a little too dangerous. David Bamber’s Mr Collins would be hard to out-do, but Tom Hollander turns in a very creditable creep.

But other things are not quite right. Lydia is played as a sweet child, rather than an obnoxious teen. Georgiana is a bubbling extravert. Matthew McFadyen, lovely though he is, seemed more sad than proud. Bingley, for some reason, is played as a wittering fool. The Hursts, and Maria Lucas, were entirely absent. Still other things were definitely not right. Anyone who knows the period would find it jarring for Mr Bingley to pop into Jane’s bedchamber while she’s ill at Netherfield, or for Darcy to stride into Elizabeth’s to deliver his letter. Lady Catherine, oddly, shows up at the Bennets’ in the middle of the night. The scene where Lizzy accepts Darcy’s second proposal has them in their respective dressing gowns, meeting on the misty moors before breakfast. Other things feel even less true: Lizzy yelling "Leave me alone!" Charlotte Lucas yelling "Don't you dare judge me!”

These moments jar more on reflection than they do during the film. That’s because they fit into the film’s raised emotional volume, its adolescence, its romanticism. This film does for Austen what Baz Luhrmann did for Shakespeare: it brings great art to a new audience in a way that says more about the audience than the art.   As a movie, it’s enjoyable, but it’s a different kind of joy from the subtler, more decorous kind Austen usually delivers. It’s as if the director, Joe Wright, found the book insufferably tedious and thought he’d like Austen infinitely better if it were louder, grittier, racier - more romantic. Much more romantic, perhaps, but not near so much like Austen. 


We do those shadows tread

As Virginia Woolf noted, so many of Donne's poems begin abruptly, with peremptory commands. “Batter my heart!”, “Hold your tongue!”, "Stand still!" This last begins a little poem both sweet and bleak: “A lecture upon the shadow.” The lovers walk together all one morning. He doesn't linger on that scene, but it echoes another of his love poems, “The Ecstasy” in which the lovers “like sepulchral statues lay...And we said nothing all the day.” Some of his most erotic poetry is not about bed but hours of quiet communion - lying on a violet-strewn river bank, walking together on a sunny morning. But the morning ends, and the shadowless moment of noon gives rise to this lecture, really a warning, about the phases of love. In its infancy, love casts shadows in order to hide from others; Donne's clandestine courtship of his employer's niece, Anne More, would have been full of such shadows. But after the noon of “brave clearness” in which the love is acknowledged and blessed, the shadows fall and lengthen the other way. Left to themselves at last, he predicts, the lovers disguise and mislead one another, and love declines into a night of mutual blindness and deceit. The power of this poem is the chill of dark it casts over the bright meridian of day; the sudden eclipse of love's morning. Like Hamlet grabbing Ophelia's elbow and muttering “Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?" Donne here stands in front of his lover - in her face, probably in her light - to issue the doom of their love. Love's only possible moment of truth, he says, is impossible to keep. With the last word, now like Othello, direfully he puts out the light. 

Stand still, and I will read to thee 
A lecture, love, in love's philosophy. 
         These three hours that we have spent, 
         Walking here, two shadows went 
Along with us, which we ourselves produc'd. 
But, now the sun is just above our head, 
         We do those shadows tread, 
         And to brave clearness all things are reduc'd. 
So whilst our infant loves did grow, 
Disguises did, and shadows, flow 
From us, and our cares; but now 'tis not so. 
That love has not attain'd the high'st degree, 
Which is still diligent lest others see.
Except our loves at this noon stay, 
We shall new shadows make the other way. 
         As the first were made to blind 
         Others, these which come behind 
Will work upon ourselves, and blind our eyes. 
If our loves faint, and westwardly decline, 
         To me thou, falsely, thine, 
         And I to thee mine actions shall disguise. 
The morning shadows wear away, 
But these grow longer all the day; 
But oh, love's day is short, if love decay. 
Love is a growing, or full constant light, 
And his first minute, after noon, is night. 

The poetic close-talking of John Donne

Somewhere CS Lewis says that, as poets, Donne and Robert Browning share a tendency to “buttonhole” their readers - or, as we might say, “get in their face.” This is the same quality Lewis's near contemporary, Virginia Woolf, praised in Donne and what, for her, made him modern. Here's Woolf, in The Common Reader (1925, 1935):

“But the first quality that attracts us is not his meaning, charged with meaning as his poetry is, but something much more unmixed and immediate; it is the explosion with which he bursts into speech. All preface, all parleying have been consumed; he leaps into poetry the shortest way.”

Some first lines come to mind: “Death be not proud”...“Stand still, and I will read to thee”...“For God's sake hold your tongue and let me love.” He’s a consummately bossy poet, always forestalling argument or dissent, his finger on the lapel, or on the lips, of his hearer. Much of his poetry reads like Browning's dramatic monologues, but there's no assumed persona. It's Donne bursting from the poem, exploding in your face. And not only does he explode in your face, he cuts off your escape. 

“The world, a moment before, cheerful, humdrum, bursting with character and variety, is consumed. We are in Donne’s world now. All other views are sharply cut off. In this power of suddenly surprising and subjugating the reader, Donne excels most poets. It is his characteristic quality; it is thus that he lays hold upon us”.

This massive poetic egotism - the eclipse of other worlds, the drowning out of argument, the importunate seduction - is what made Donne's verses leap out of the seventeenth century into modernity, and makes Donne himself burst out of his verses, into our faces.


All the air things wear

Here's some more Hopkins, one I found by accident looking for something else. It's called In the Valley of the Elwy.The comforting smell...fetched fresh...off some sweet woodis redolent to me of childhood winters, our own valley filled with fragrant woodsmoke. It also reminds me of Herbert: Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back...”; and of Heber: “every prospect pleases, and only man is vile.” I like the congruence of household imagery with nature and with supernature. The first two lines of the second stanza are as good as anything else Hopkins wrote.

I remember a house where all were good
To me, God knows, deserving no such thing:
Comforting smell breathed at very entering,
Fetched fresh, as I suppose, off some sweet wood.
That cordial air made those kind people a hood
All over, as a bevy of eggs the mothering wing
Will, or mild nights the new morsels of Spring:
Why, it seemed of course; seemed of right it should.

Lovely the woods, waters, meadows, combes, vales,
All the air things wear that build this world of Wales;
Only the inmate does not correspond:
God, lover of souls, swaying considerate scales,
Complete thy creature dear O where it fails,
Being mighty a master, being a father and fond.


Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie

Winter's here, but there's time for one final autumn poem before the last leaves fall. This is Hopkins: “Spring and Fall - To a Young Child.” It's deep and dense, as Hopkins is wont to be. It gets at the guts of autumn - that it's about being mortal, that, in life and in leaf, it's the shadow of spring.
MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older        
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:        
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.