Friday
May152015

Unvisited tomes

I mentioned Mary “Mrs Humphry” Ward a while back. I’d never read any of her books, and she doesn’t seem to rank now alongside her Victorian or Edwardian peers, but according to this Guardian piece, at the end of the nineteenth century she was the highest-earning novelist writing in England, and in the early twentieth, her books were bestsellers in America too. Between 1880 and 1920 she wrote 26 novels and published regularly in journals. She was the niece of Matthew Arnold, and the aunt of Aldous Huxley. She was as much a household name as Dickens or Eliot had been. So what happened to her? Why are her books now gathering dust?

The main reason seems to be her politics. Though she otherwise did a great deal of good for women and children, she was a very visible and voluble campaigner against women’s suffrage. Heading the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League, “Ma Hump” became known as a reactionary and a crank, the purveyor of all kinds of kooky pro-empire poppycock; through her husband (a journalist at The Times), and her son (an MP), she effectively held up legislation on the extension of suffrage for years. The price she’s paid is her own posterity.

So what of the books themselves? Do they deserve to be retrieved from their author’s obscurity? I think so. I’ve read Lady Rose’s Daughter and have begun to read Eleanor, and they strike me as eminently readable, and retrievable. Akin to George Eliot, though not as broad, and to Henry James, though not as deep, her books are nonetheless perfectly respectable turn-of-the-century social realism, with a flair for lyric description. Here, for instance, is Julie Le Breton, the heroine of Lady Rose’s Daughter:


They were approaching a woman whose tall slenderness, combined with a remarkable physiognomy, arrested the old man's attention. She was not handsome–that, surely, was his first impression? The cheek-bones were too evident, the chin and mouth too strong. And yet the fine pallor of the skin, the subtle black-and-white, in which, so to speak, the head and face were drawn, the life, the animation of the whole–were these not beauty, or more than beauty? As for the eyes, the carriage of the head, the rich magnificence of hair, arranged with an artful eighteenth-century freedom, as Madame Vigée Le Brun might have worn it – with the second glance the effect of them was such that Sir Wilfrid could not cease from looking at the lady they adorned. It was an effect as of something over-living, over-brilliant – an animation, an intensity, so strong that, at first beholding, a by-stander could scarcely tell whether it pleased him or no.

And here is an Italian sunset, near the beginning of Eleanor:

The sunset was rushing to its height through every possible phase of violence and splendour. From the Mediterranean, storm-clouds were rising fast to the assault and conquest of the upper sky, which still above the hills shone blue and tranquil. [...] Below these [...] the heaven was at peace, shining in delicate greens and yellows, infinitely translucent and serene, above the dazzling lines of water. Over Rome itself there was a strange massing and curving of the clouds. Between their blackness and the deep purple of the Campagna, rose the city—pale phantom—upholding one great dome, and one only, to the view of night and the world.

Maybe it’s not as good as the best things of its period, which have survived much better, but it’s still very satisfying to the reader who likes that period, and likes to think it’s not exhausted by its few survivors. It’s a live question whether repellant personalities who happened to write great books should be forgiven. The other question this raises for me is who among our present writers will be forgotten? Which opinions or political acts will in time be seen as unforgivable?

Saturday
Apr252015

Where storms and stars come from

This poem has been sitting in my drafts folder for ages; I've been waiting for a reason to post it. I don't really have one now, except that it's a fine poem and deserves an airing, with or without a pretext.

Carl Sandburg, I've learned, grew up poor, the American child of Swedish immigrants. He left school at thirteen and became a drifter, then a soldier. He eventually made his way to college, where an encouraging teacher drew out his poetic gift. He went on to publish six books and eleven poetry collections, and to win three Pulitzers. He wrote books about Abraham Lincoln, and about the photographer Edward Steichen, who was his brother-in-law. He also played the banjo.

This poem, “The Young Sea,” is 99 years old. Here the sea, earth's most ancient thing, is recast as young and restless - stormy as youth, and yet the progenitor of stars. 

The sea is never still.
It pounds on the shore
Restless as a young heart,
Hunting.

The sea speaks
And only the stormy hearts
Know what it says:
It is the face
        of a rough mother speaking.

The sea is young.
One storm cleans all the hoar
And loosens the age of it.
I hear it laughing, reckless.

They love the sea,
Men who ride on it
And know they will die
Under the salt of it

Let only the young come,
       Says the sea.
Let them kiss my face
   And hear me.
I am the last word
   And I tell
Where storms and stars come from.

 

Tuesday
Apr142015

Sadly descends the autumn evening

The scene is Autumn, but Matthew Arnold's long poem “Rugby Chapel” (November, 1857) is not about the season at all. A gloomy autumn evening in the grounds of Rugby school leads to a reverie about his father, the former headmaster; how he was one of those bright, heroic Victorian souls (like Tennyson's Ulysses) who helped round up the doubters and stragglers and keep them on the road to glory. The poem is stitched together from fragments of Thomas Arnold's sermons. I could imagine his earnest but skeptical son, like so many of his generation, looking back on this glowing and strenuous certainty with genuine nostalgia through the gathering darkness. 

Coldly, sadly descends
The autumn evening. The Field
Strewn with its dank yellow drifts
Of wither’d leaves, and the elms,
Fade into dimness apace,
Silent;—hardly a shout
From a few boys late at their play!
The lights come out in the street,
In the school-room windows; but cold,
Solemn, unlighted, austere,
Through the gathering darkness, arise
The Chapel walls, in whose bound
Thou, my father! art laid.[...]

What is the course of the life
Of mortal men on the earth?—
Most men eddy about
Here and there—eat and drink,
Chatter and love and hate,
Gather and squander, are raised
Aloft, are hurl’d in the dust,
Striving blindly, achieving
Nothing; and, then they die—
Perish; and no one asks
Who or what they have been,
More than he asks what waves
In the moonlit solitudes mild
Of the midmost Ocean, have swell’d,
Foam’d for a moment, and gone.[...]

See! in the rocks of the world
Marches the host of mankind,
A feeble, wavering line.
Where are they tending?—A God
Marshall’d them, gave them their goal.—
Ah, but the way is so long!
Years they have been in the wild!
Sore thirst plagues them; the rocks,
Rising all round, overawe.
Factions divide them; their host
Threatens to break, to dissolve.
Ah, keep, keep them combined!
Else, of the myriads who fill
That army, not one shall arrive!
Sole they shall stray; in the rocks
Labour for ever in vain,
Die one by one in the waste.

Then, in such hour of need
Of your fainting, dispirited race,
Ye, like angels, appear,
Radiant with ardour divine.
Beacons of hope, ye appear!
Languor is not in your heart,
Weakness is not in your word,
Weariness not on your brow.
Ye alight in our van; at your voice,
Panic, despair, flee away.
Ye move through the ranks, recall
The stragglers, refresh the outworn,
Praise, re-inspire the brave.
Order, courage, return.
Eyes rekindling, and prayers,
Follow your steps as ye go.
Ye fill up the gaps in our files,
Strengthen the wavering line,
Stablish, continue our march,
On, to the bound of the waste,
On, to the City of God.

Read the whole poem, and an excellent short biography of Arnold here.

Saturday
Apr042015

He lives, he wakes

This is Shelley on the death of Keats, but today it could be for the resurrected Christ: alive, awake, the light and life and song of all creation. Praise him.


Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep—
He hath awakened from the dream of life—
’Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife
Invulnerable nothings.—We decay
Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay [...]

He lives, he wakes—’tis Death is dead, not he;
Mourn not for Adonais.—Thou young Dawn,
Turn all thy dew to splendour, for from thee
The spirit thou lamentest is not gone;
Ye caverns and ye forests, cease to moan!
Cease, ye faint flowers and fountains, and thou Air
Which like a mourning veil thy scarf hadst thrown
O’er the abandoned Earth, now leave it bare
Even to the joyous stars which smile on its despair!

He is made one with Nature: there is heard
His voice in all her music, from the moan
Of thunder, to the song of night’s sweet bird;
He is a presence to be felt and known
In darkness and in light, from herb and stone,
Spreading itself where’er that Power may move
Which has withdrawn his being to its own;
Which wields the world with never-wearied love,
Sustains it from beneath, and kindles it above.


Friday
Mar272015

White sleep and silence

Another poet I’d never heard of: James Russell Lowell, who seems, nevertheless, to bestride the nineteenth century like a Colossus. He was born and died in the same big old house in Cambridge, Massachussetts, but between his birth in 1819 and his death in 1891, he travelled the world, wrote, edited and lectured, met kings, queens and presidents, outlived two wives and three of his four children, and more than once stood on the brink of suicide. He went to Harvard at 15 to study law and returned at 36 to lecture on languages. He never practiced law. He was an abolitionist who seemed to believe in white superiority, and a temperance advocate who drank heavily. He was one of the New England ‘Fireside Poets’, a group that also included the euphonious names of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier, but he also served as America’s ambassador to Spain, then England. He edited journals: his first, The Pioneer, only lasted three issues, but in one of those appeared a short story called “The Tell-Tale Heart,” by one Edgar Allen Poe. A little later, he was the first editor of The Atlantic Monthly, now in its 158th year. He knew Emerson and the Brownings and Leigh Hunt and Henry James. He was the grandcestor of poets Amy Lowell and Robert Lowell, and the godfather of Virginia Woolf. His achievements were many but his legacy is ambivalent. His poetic vocation was sincere, but his verse was often derivative. He was both praised and pilloried by his contemporaries, and is now largely forgotten. He said of himself, “I shall be popular by and by.”

Here are three stanzas of his poem “An Indian-Summer Reverie,” which runs to five pages. Notably, the unrhymable word ‘purple’ appears in the poem no fewer than six times, including the variant ‘purpler,’ though never at the end of a line. It's not great poetry but there are felicities here I'd be sorry to miss.


What visionary tints the year puts on,
When falling leaves falter through motionless air
Or numbly cling and shiver to be gone!
How shimmer the low flats and pastures bare,
As with her nectar Hebe Autumn fills
The bowl between me and those distant hills,
And smiles and shakes abroad her misty, tremulous hair!

How fuse and mix, with what unfelt degrees,
Clasped by the faint horizon’s languid arms,
Each into each, the hazy distances!
The softened season all the landscape charms;
Those hills, my native village that embay,
In waves of dreamier purple roll away,
And floating in mirage seem all the glimmering farms.

 

O’er yon bare knoll the pointed cedar shadows
Drowse on the crisp, gray moss; the ploughman’s call
Creeps faint as smoke from black, fresh-furrowed meadows;
The single crow a single caw lets fall;
And all around me every bush and tree
Says Autumn’s here, and Winter soon will be
Who snows his soft, white sleep and silence over all.