Friday
Apr182014

Each leaf which falls in Autumn

                 O My chief good,
How shall I measure out thy bloud?
How shall I count what thee befell,
                 And each grief tell?

                 Shall I thy woes
Number according to thy foes?
Or, since one starre show’d thy first breath,
                 Shall all thy death?

                 Or shall each leaf,
Which falls in Autumn, score a grief?
Or can not leaves, but fruit, be signe
                 Of the true vine?

                 Then let each houre
Of my whole life one grief devoure;
That thy distresse through all may runne,
                 And be my sunne.

From George Herbert's “Good Friday”, 1633.

Sunday
Mar232014

Joy sits singing in the trees

In contrast to Rossetti’s melancholy vision of Autumn, Blake’s is buzzing with life, humming with the song of fruits and flowers. Autumn is not about sleep but rest and revelry; not about death but fulfilment and fertility, blossoming and blessing. It brings what Summer promised. This is “To Autumn” (1793).

O Autumn, laden with fruit, and stain’d
With the blood of the grape, pass not, but sit
Beneath my shady roof; there thou may’st rest,
And tune thy jolly voice to my fresh pipe,
And all the daughters of the year shall dance!
Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers.

“The narrow bud opens her beauties to
The sun, and love runs in her thrilling veins;
Blossoms hang round the brows of Morning, and
Flourish down the bright cheek of modest Eve,
Till clust’ring Summer breaks forth into singing,
And feather’d clouds strew flowers round her head.

The spirits of the air live in the smells
Of fruit; and Joy, with pinions light, roves round
The gardens, or sits singing in the trees.”
Thus sang the jolly Autumn as he sat,
Then rose, girded himself, and o’er the bleak
Hills fled from our sight; but left his golden load.

Saturday
Mar152014

Death seems a comely thing

This year Autumn seems slow in coming. Our oak tree is streaked with rust here and there, but the days are warm, and mostly the eye meets what Hopkins called “grass and greenworld.” Still, it won't be long before the colour comes to riot in the trees, and the leaves begin to fall. It's my favourite among the seasons, and I've written before about why it inspires more poetry than the others. It also inspires more various poetry. It's a play with many meanings, or a symphony with many themes. Some poems celebrate its beauty, where others, like Dante Gabriel Rossetti's “Autumn Song” (1883), are full of a drowsy melancholy. In spite of the beauty, death is the climax, the returning melody. 
Know’st thou not at the fall of the leaf
How the heart feels a languid grief
   Laid on it for a covering,
   And how sleep seems a goodly thing
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf?

And how the swift beat of the brain
Falters because it is in vain,
   In Autumn at the fall of the leaf
   Knowest thou not? and how the chief
Of joys seems—not to suffer pain?

Know’st thou not at the fall of the leaf
How the soul feels like a dried sheaf
   Bound up at length for harvesting,
   And how death seems a comely thing
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf?
Monday
Mar102014

Fatally cheap

 

To many book professionals, Amazon is a ruthless predator. The company claims to want a more literate world—and it came along when the book world was in distress, offering a vital new source of sales. But then it started asking a lot of personal questions, and it created dependency and harshly exploited its leverage; eventually, the book world realized that Amazon had its house keys and its bank-account number, and wondered if that had been the intention all along.
This comes from an eye-opening and rather chilling account in a recent New Yorker of how Amazon works and what it is doing to the book industry. Whatever damage it might be doing, Amazon still has the huge advantage of being able to source just about anything ever written, which your local independent bookshop, whatever good it might be doing, simply can't match. I think a lot of us were sad but ultimately willing to see the local bookshop go under, but I doubt we'd show the same complacency if we thought publishing itself, books as we know them, might be priced out of existence. 
Saturday
Mar012014

A fatal cheapness

Hilary Mantel has reconciled me to the idea of historical fiction, if not every expression of it, but I still find myself in sympathy with these cogent objections from Henry James. He was writing in 1901 to his friend Sarah Orne Jewett, who had sent him a copy of her latest work, a historical novel. 

The ‘historical novel’ is, for me, condemned, even in cases of labour as delicate as yours, to a fatal cheapness, for the simple reason that the difficulty of the job is inordinate and that a mere escamotage, in the interest of ease, and of the abysmal public naivety, becomes inevitable. You may multiply the little facts that may be got from pictures and documents, relics and prints, as much as you like – the real thing is almost impossible to do, and in its essence the whole effect is as naught: I mean the invention, the representation of the old CONSCIOUSNESS, the soul, the sense, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose mind half the things that make ours, that make the modern world, were non-existent. You have to think with your modern apparatus a man, a woman or rather fifty – whose own thinking was intensely otherwise conditioned, you have to simplify back by an amazing tour de force – and even then it’s all humbug.

I think the fiction of our own age, historical and otherwise, suffers greatly from just this preoccupation with little facts. Few writers capture the consciousness or mind of our modern world, let alone a past one. Most are content with a proliferation of objects. These are what seem 'real' in our age, whereas to James they were less real than the inner world of which they survived as relics. That's why his writing remains unapproachably rich, and ours seems condemned to cheapness.