In his introductory remarks, His Excellency Michael Collins, Ireland’s ambassador to the U.S., spoke of the current economic difficulties in his native land. The situation, he emphasized, makes the riches of his country’s culture all the more essential. Great music and literature provide a needed solace, a sense of identity, and hope for the future.
Take that, those of you who would slash funding for the arts! (Sorry – I just couldn’t help myself.)
Ambassador Collins made mention of an initiative aimed at promoting the culture of the Emerald Isle on these shores. It’s called Imagine Ireland: A Year of Irish Arts in America 2011. He then introduced this evening’s distinguished speaker, whose name I finally know how to pronounce. (It’s Collum Toe-bean, for the phonetically challenged.)
Colm Toibin chose “Two Women,” from The Empty Family, to read to his audience Although it does not seem so at the outset, this is actually a love story, and a deeply moving one. I had already read it, and was delighted that Toibin had chosen it. He prefaced the reading by recounting of a true life experience involving his acquaintance with an actor. The love story involves an actor and a film set designer, and this gem of the tale originated in an actual incident that was related to the author by someone he knew. The story “Silence,” in the same anthology, depicts Henry James gleaning material for his fiction in much the same way. Toibin mentioned the fact that James took the bare outline of a situation involving two orphaned children and their governess living in a remote country house – a story told to him by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1895 – and fashioned it into one of the most disturbing, not to mention terrifying, works of literature ever to see print: The Turn of the Screw.
I am reminded of this passage from Selina Hastings’s biography of Somerset Maugham:
Maugham’s attitude to James’s work over the years was to grow increasingly equivocal, a mixture of impatience and admiration, impatience with what he saw as a lack of that empathy essential to a novelist and admiration for a superb technique. “The great novelists, even in seclusion, have lived life passionately,” Maugham wrote. “Henry James was content to observe it from a window.”
Still, he saw plenty from that window…
Toibin’s reading was followed by an intermission. And now it was time for music, dancing, and poetry. The music was provided by the Narrowbacks, formerly known as Celtic Thunder
The above photo was taken in 2005. The composition of the group has changed somewhat since then. Tony DeMarco and Dominick Murray did not play Friday night. Singer and instrumentalist Eileen Korn Estes and fiddler Brendan Mulvihill performed in their stead.
As always, the Narrowbacks made great music. And oh, the dancers from the Culkin School!
Back to the Narrowbacks. Terry Winch is not only an instrumentalist and songwriter, but a poet as well. (He and Jesse are brothers.) One of his songs, “When New York was Irish,” has apparently become something of a standard in the Irish music repertoire:
At the Irish Evening celebration, Terry customarily reads aloud several of his poems. They can be somber, but seem more often to be gently ironic, even whimsical:
No one is safe. The streets are unsafe.
even in the safety zones, it’s not safe.
Even safe sex is not safe.
Even things you lock in a safe
are not safe. Never deposit anything
in a safety deposit box, because it
won’t be safe there. Nobody is safe
at home during baseball games anymore.
At night I go around in the dark
locking everything, returning
a few minutes later
to make sure I locked
everything. It’s not safe here.
It’s not safe and they know it.
People get hurt using safety pins.
It was not always this way.
Long ago, everyone felt safe. Aristotle
never felt danger. Herodotus felt danger
only when Xerxes was around. Young women
were afraid of wing’d dragons, but felt
relaxed otherwise. Timotheus, however,
was terrified of storms until he played
one on the flute. After that, everyone
was more afraid of him than of the violent
west wind, which was fine with Timotheus.
Euclid, full of music himself, believed only
that there was safety in numbers.
“Deep shadows were gathering in the valleys between the hills, and the slanting rays of the setting sun illuminated Wenlock Edge, some miles distant.” – Appointed To Die, by Kate Charles
Appointed To Die is the second in the Book of Psalms series by Kate Charles. The protagonist, Lucy Kingsley, is an artist. Although living in London, she’s frequently in Malbury where her father Canon John Kingsley serves as priest at Malbury Cathedral. (Charles locates the fictional Malbury near the actual cathedral city of Hereford, close to the Welsh border.) One is immediately apprised of the tension and discord arising among the individuals and groups attached in various ways to the cathedral. For instance, Rowena Hunt, head of Friends of the Cathedral, has her eye on architect Jeremy Bartlett. But Jeremy has eyes only for Lucy Kingsley. Then there’s Subdean Arthur Brydges-ffrench, who aspires to fill the vacant post of Dean of Malbury Cathedral. Brydges-ffrench is a known quantity at Malbury, and deeply respected. Yet it is doubtful that his dream will become a reality. In conversation with Lucy, Jeremy Bartlett partially illuminates the difficulty with this assessment of the man:
‘He has an utterly perverse antiquarian mind. You know the sort I mean–adores crossword puzzles and obscure theological riddles. He was a chorister here himself, back in the thirties. And if he had his way, we’d all do things exactly the way they were done then.’
It did not take long for This Reader to experience a distinct sensation of deja vu. Why, we’re in Trollope country! Sure enough, the first allusion appears on page 21. When Jeremy tells Lucy that he’s a cellist, she responds, “Shades of Barchester….Mr. Harding and his cello.” Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire consists of six novels:
I’ve read Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, and Framley Parsonage. They were all three wonderful. It’s been a while, but I recall Framley Parsonage as a delightful comedy of manners, Doctor Thorne as an engrossing love story, and Barchester Towers as…well, a work of genius, right up there in the pantheon of the great Victorian novels of nineteenth century Britain.
As in days of old, so it is in Malbury: gossip and innuendo abound in the claustrophobic world of the cathedral close. Still, it’s just business as usual until Stuart Latimer, the newly appointed Dean, makes his grand entrance, attended by his tony, well-connected wife – she who refers to the local people as “rustics!’ - along with various other London luminaries. Then the level of conflict and intrigue is ratcheted upward toward the stratosphere!
One bone of contention in Malbury concerns a music festival recently put on by the cathedral community. This impetus for this event was provided by Canon Brydges-ffrench; as Jeremy explains, “‘He’s never been able to stand being excluded from the Three Choirs Festival.’” I was delighted by this mention of a festival that has intrigued me ever since I learned that Ralph Vaughan Williams was there in 1910 to conduct the premiere of “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.” I was about to start rhapsodizing on the otherworldly gorgeousness of this music, its quintessential Englishness…but, well, just listen, while you feast your eyes on Devon’s River Torridge and its wildlife:
I was struck by the essential integrity of this beautifully written novel:, in the believability of its characters, with their all-too-human mix of good intentions and perverse impulses, the sense of impending crisis that keeps the reader fully engaged in the narrative, the unceasing war between spiritual aspirations and the baser instincts, the striving for beauty in art, music, and worship – just the sheer depth of feeling that resonates throughout.
When the untimely death of one of their own shocks the cathedral community, its grief-stricken members look to Canon John Kingsley for consolation. Ina stirring and eloquent sermon, he gives them what they crave. Afterward, Lucy asks him how he knew just what to say, and he responds:
‘…the best way I can describe it is like a gramophone record, with God at the center. The center is still, but the record spins around, and the farther you are from the center the faster you spin. That’s what I was doing earlier, spinning around the outside of the gramophone record, trying to make sense of it all on my own terms. But when I got up to speak I let God carry me toward the center, and the nearer I got the more certain I was the He was in control. There’s tremendous peace in letting go like that.’
Appointed To Die came out in 1994, but in this passage Canon Kingsley’s diction seems antiquated, belonging to an earlier era. The analogy to an LP record put me in mind of John Donne’s poem “A Valediciton Forbidding Mourning:”
AS virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
“Now his breath goes,” and some say, “No.”
So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move ;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.
Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears ;
Men reckon what it did, and meant ;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.
Dull sublunary lovers’ love
—Whose soul is sense—cannot admit
Of absence, ’cause it doth remove
The thing which elemented it.
But we by a love so much refined,
That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss.
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to aery thinness beat.
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two ;
Thy soul, the fix’d foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’ other do.
And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run ;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
One of the reason that I chose the quotation in this post’s title is that there is a song by Ralph Vaughan Williams entitled “On Wenlock Edge.” I did not know what Wenlock Edge actually was, but as usual, Wikipedia enlightened me: “Wenlock Edge is a limestone escarpment near Much Wenlock, Shropshire, England.” (Click here for the complete entry.)
The composer took for his text this poem by A.E. Housman, from the cycle of poems, A Shropshire Lad:
On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.
‘Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
‘Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.
Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.
There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.
I was well and truly puzzled by “Wrekin” and “Uricon.” The Wrekin, Shropshire’s 15th highest peak, turns out to be a distinctive landmark with a fascinating history. (The BBC has more on this subject.) “”Uricon” was harder to find. The word is actually a variant of “Viroconium Cornoviorum,” which is the name of an old Roman town found in Shropshire.
Finally, here is Ian Bostridge singing and discussing “On Wenlock Edge” and “Is My Team Ploughing?” (the latter also based on a poem from A Shropshire Lad).
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
A shocking death occurs on the island of Oland, off the coast of Sweden. The death is quickly followed by a case of mistaken identity – or rather, a case of bad information that the police should have flagged before it was divulged, causing further damage and pain.
When last I wrote about Johan Theorin’s The Darkest Room, I was about half way through the book and found myself spellbound by its strange admixture of dread and grief. As I read on, though, I found that the concentrated force of the first half of this narrative was diluted by the complexity of subsequent developments. In addition, there were numerous flashbacks to earlier events in the lives of various players in the drama. I have to say up front, I’m not a great fan of time shifts in fictional narratives. I prefer straight ahead storytelling. I always think, if it was good enough for Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Anthony Trollope – it’s definitely good enough for me! (Yes, I admit there are exceptions…but not many.)
My final verdict is still positive. The evocation of atmosphere, the twists and turns of the story, the vividness of the characters who people this bleak yet compelling landscape – all these qualities ultimately overcame the novel’s deficiencies. And I simply must add: in The Darkest Room, Johan Theorin evokes the specter of human suffering with the deepest compassion and empathy. It is a portrayal on a par with the greats of the nineteenth century mentioned above.
[Kalmar County, on the southern tip of Oland, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.]
There are some authors whose books I read regardless of what the reviewers have to say about them. Two of these are skilled practitioners of the police procedural, John Harvey and Barry Maitland. The latter is a fairly recent discovery for me and a I must say, a most welcome one. I’ve been reading the Brock and Kolla novels in no particular order, though I’d rather be reading them in sequence. This is a series in which the characters’ situations, both personal and professional, change and evolve over time. Nevertheless, I am such a fan of Maitland at this point, I intend to read all his books, in whatever order they come my way!
Most recently, I read Babel. Max Springer, a professor of philosophy at a London university, was unalterably opposed to any form of religious extremism. His position included, but was certainly not limited to, Muslim extremists. Springer was not afraid of controversy, nor was he shy about making his views known. So when he is shot dead on the crowded steps of one of the university buildings, it is assumed that his unyielding position on hot button issues has gotten him killed.
But is it really that simple? Of course not.
Meanwhile, Kathy Kolla is recovering from the traumatic events of Silvermeadow. She’s considering leaving the force – the profession, actually – for good. But this multilayered case, with its odd implications and complications, and her undiminished bond with her boss and mentor David Brock, still work powerfully upon her.
Many mystery fans, including myself, are delighted to find what I call “added value” in the novels they read. Dick Francis was well known for providing this entertaining diversion in his work. (We miss you, Dick!) I’ve been pleased to encounter it in Maitland’s books. A student working with Professor Springer was doing her doctoral dissertation on Hannah Arendt. In Babel, we learn some interesting things about this seminal figure in twentieth century philosophy. (This is a timely reference; in March, a new book came out whose subject is the relationship between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger: . How’s that cover for an image to haunt your dreams…two people – both brilliant scholars – at a supremely turbulent moment in history, who should never have become lovers – but did.)
Babel is also concerned with the Yemeni community in London. At one point, a character tell David Brock: “‘Did you know that the Yemenis are the oldest Muslim residents of London?’” (This assertion also appears in Wikipedia.) As you may have surmised, Babel takes as its subject matter the presence of Muslim communities in England’s teeming metropolis. This book was published in 2002 but was completed earlier. The following statement by the author appears in the “Acknowledgements” preceding the text:
This book was written before the terrible events of 11 September 2001, at a time when the story of Islam in Britain was less widely discussed than today.
Other Brock and Kolla novels I’ve enjoyed:
I’ve long been a fan of the novels of John Harvey. Harvey first gained a following in this country with the series featuring Charlie Resnick. A policeman in Nottingham, Resnick is a most appealing fellow, with his passion for jazz and his four cats named for various jazz greats. Harvey had ostensibly closed out that acclaimed series with Last Rites (1998), but Charlie had a welcome return engagement in 2008′s outstanding Cold in Hand. Meanwhile, Harvey had created a new protagonist, Frank Elder, a retired detective living in Cornwall. Finally, in Gone to Ground (2007), we were introduced to Detective Inspector Will Grayson and Detective Sergeant Helen Walker of Cambridge. Far Cry is the second outing for this pair. (Having trouble keeping track? You’re not the only one. Thanks goodness for Stop! You’re Killing Me, and Harvey’s own website.)
Londoners Ruth and Simon Pierce are devastated by the murder of their teenage daughter Heather. The tragedy destroys their marriage. Ruth, desperate to start over, moves to Cambridge and gets married again, to the solid, dependable Andrew Lawson. Together they have a daughter, Beatrice. A passionate book lover, Ruth is also studying for a degree in library management. On the surface, her life looks good – very good. But the grief is still there. In point of fact, Ruth is haunted – and in more ways than one.
I found Ruth a very appealing, utterly believable character. (And she has excellent literary taste: one of her favorite authors is Rose Tremain.) The same is true for Will Grayson. He is that rara avis in crime fiction: a happily married family man deeply in love with his wife Lorraine. Monogamy suits Will; it brings out the shine in him.
I enjoyed Far Cry, as I’ve enjoyed John Harvey’s other novels. Although this one ran a bit too long, I recommend it nonetheless. Here’s how Marilyn Stasio begins her review for The New York Times:
A bleeding-heart sensibility isn’t the first thing you expect from a thriller. Unless, of course, the author happens to be John Harvey, whose boundless empathy imparts a grave and tender tone to his bleak crime novels.
One final observation: there’s a bit of misdirection toward the novel’s climax that really threw me off the scent – very cunning!
Other favorite novels by John Harvey:
In a recent post on thrillers, I praised The Silver Bear by Derek Haas. I’d like to take this opportunity to enlarge on those comments.
In this novel, Haas has created a truly fascinating character, a killer for hire whose inner conflicts and propensity for deep thinking make him an intriguing protagonist. He is known only by his adopted name, Columbus.
Columbus has become a contract killer almost by accident. To begin with, he is given the chance to put to death an individual by whom he has been extremely ill used. Events are arranged so that the crime goes unsolved. From there, he proceeds to murder for hire. In other words: first, it’s murder for intensely personal reasons; then, it’s murder for money. And of course, once you’re in, you’re in.
Columbus makes some shrewd observations about his almost inadvertently chosen occupation:
To hunt a human being, it is not enough to plot from afar, externally. An assassin must understand his prey by storming the target’s mind the way an army storms enemy territory. He must live, sleep, eat, breathe as the target does, until he has merged with the target, until they are one. To kill a man, he must become the man, so that he can live as himself beyond the man.
Then there’s this:
How does an assassin bring down a good man? He summons up his own iniquity; he measures himself against the man and feeds on the distance he falls short. And where would that road lead, when there was no connection to sever?
Finally, he asks himself this question: “What price would I pay for focusing my hate on myself?” This puts me in mind of Graham Greene’s explanation of why he became a Catholic: “I had to find a religion…to measure my evil against.” In a sense, by choosing the religion of killing and death, Columbus has done the same. Graham Greene’s situation contained within itself the potential for absolution; such is not the case for Columbus.
I could not help comparing Derek Haas’s portrayal of a hit man with that of Lawrence Block in the Keller stories. In Hit Parade, Block went for the subversive and irreverent; the stories were at times quite humorous. But in Hit and Run, the tone becomes more somber. Keller is faced with an agonizing dilemma, one which Columbus also faces in The Silver Bear; namely, can I have love in my life and still be who – and what – I am?
I read Robert Goddard’s first book, Past Caring, when it came out in 1986. What I chiefly remember about it was the wonderful writing, the exotic atmosphere, and the intriguing plot. Two years later came In Pale Battalions. This is both a love story and a tale of suspense; it begins during the First World War. I recall being enraptured by this novel and have long intended to re-read it. This review has reawakened that resolve.
I’ve been returning to Goddard’s elegant thrillers off and on for over twenty years. Just recently I read Long Time Coming. This is a story that moves back and forth in time, primarily from 1976 to 1940. Having ditched both a career and a fiancee in Houston, Texas, Stephen Swan has returned home to live with his widowed mother while he decides what to do next. To his surprise, he learns that an uncle he had thought was long dead is not only alive but is currently living in his mother’s house. Eldritch Swan, now in his late sixties and wheezing with smoker’s cough, also needs to figure out his next move. But unlike Stephen, Eldritch is nearly destitute. Why? He has just been released from an Irish prison, where he spent the last 36 years. Eldritch has a score to settle and reparations to claim. And before he knows what’s happening, Stephen gets drawn in to his uncle’s schemes – and into his past as well. That past involves a shady diamond merchant and stolen (and possibly forged) paintings by Picasso. And this is just the beginning.
Long Time Coming is a fiendishly complex novel full of unexpected twists and turns. Clocking in at over 400 pages, it ran a bit long. The time shifts could be confusing. But overall I enjoyed it, as I have every novel I’ve read by this fine writer.
Here’s Part One of an interview with Robert Goddard by Barbara Peters of the legendary Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Click here for the second and third parts of the interview.
I’ve always meant to seek out the source of the title In Pale Battalions. It comes from a poem entitled, “When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead:”
When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto,
“yet many a better one has died before.”
Then, scanning all the overcrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all this for evermore.
The author, Charles Hamilton Sorley, was killed in World War One. This poem was found among his belongings after his death.
It happened at the Concord Colonial Inn in Concord, Massachusetts, some twenty years ago. My husband and I were having dinner. Emily Dickinson was wafting hither and thither through the dining room, clutching a shawl close against the cold. She was available, she informed us, for the purpose of reciting her poems.
My first thought: “Because I could not stop for death, / He kindly stopped for me.”
Second thought: “After great pain, a formal feeling comes– / The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;”
Well, this just won’t do, said I to myself. Here we are, in this lovely old (supposedly haunted) hotel, partaking of this delicious New England repast. There may have been a fire going in the fireplace. At any rate, I felt the need to elicit from Miss Dickinson a lyric rather less doom laden than the above. I said to her tentatively, “Isn’t there something about a ‘little tippler’…?”
There certainly was, and she forthwith launched into her recitation:
I taste a liquor never brewed,
From tankards scooped in pearl;
Not all the vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!
Inebriate of air am I,
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling, through endless summer days,
From inns of molten blue.
When landlords turn the drunken bee
Out of the foxglove’s door,
When butterflies renounce their drams,
I shall but drink the more!
Till seraphs swing their snowy hats,
And saints to windows run,
To see the little tippler
Leaning against the sun!
I have visited Concord several times, and have waxed lyrical about that gem of a town in this space. Emily Dickinson, however, did not live in Concord but rather in Amherst, to the west. Her life was intimately bound up with the college, with Amherst Academy, where she received her secondary school education, and with the newly founded Mount Holyoke College in nearby South Hadley, which she also attended. I’m getting all this from a new biography of the poet by Lyndall Gordon. I first heard of this book some months ago and was at once struck by its title, which, considering the subject, seemed bizarre: . A book about Emily Dickinson entitled Lives Like Loaded Guns? what was that about? The subtitle pretty much explains it: “Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds.” It is Gordon’s contention that those feuds – one of them about a scandalous love affair – shaped the manner in which the poet’s legacy has come down to us. As for the title itself, it originates in this poem:
My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun -
In Corners – till a Day
The Owner passed – identified -
And carried Me away -And now We roam in Sovereign Woods -
And now We hunt the Doe -
And every time I speak for Him -
The Mountains straight reply -
And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow -
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through -
And when at Night – Our good Day done -
I guard My Master’s Head -
‘Tis better than the Eider-Duck’s
Deep Pillow – to have shared -
To foe of His – I’m deadly foe -
None stir the second time -
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye -
Or an emphatic Thumb -
Though I than He – may longer live
He longer must – than I -
For I have but the power to kill,
Without–the power to die–
I don’t completely understand these lines, but I feel their power nonetheless – especially where the final two lines are concerned. As for the book, it weighs in at slightly over 400 pages (not counting notes & etc.), and at present I’m only fifty-six pages in. It is a slow but very compelling read.
As for the Emily Dickinson I encountered at the Concord Inn, she was, of course, an actress playing the part. But she was convincing, and she knew much of the canon by heart. And as for her presence there in Concord, the town has so many distinguished ghosts, it didn’t seem all that odd to see her there.
As for the Dickinson poem that, for me, is the pure distillation of her genius, it is this one, which I alluded to above:
After great pain a formal feeling comes–
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions–was it He that bore?
And yesterday–or centuries before?The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought,
A quartz contentment, like a stone.
This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow–
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.
Arthur William Edgar O’Shaughnessy. 1844–1881
I made another garden, yea,
For my new Love:
I left the dead rose where it lay
And set the new above.
Why did my Summer not begin?
Why did my heart not haste?
My old Love came and walk’d therein,
And laid the garden waste.
She enter’d with her weary smile,
Just as of old;
She look’d around a little while
And shiver’d with the cold:
Her passing touch was death to all,
Her passing look a blight;
She made the white rose-petals fall,
And turn’d the red rose white.
Her pale robe clinging to the grass
Seem’d like a snake
That bit the grass and ground, alas!
And a sad trail did make.
She went up slowly to the gate,
And then, just as of yore,
She turn’d back at the last to wait
And say farewell once more.
I think I will not give too much away if I say that these lines are read out at a funeral. It is an inappropriate choice, to say the least. The effect it produces is shock, both to the listeners and to myself, the reader.
I had been listening to the audiobook, beautifully read by Bianca Amato. As soon as I got home, I ran upstairs to the computer and found the text of this astonishing, profoundly disturbing poem.
More later on Audrey Niffenegger’s equally astonishing novel, after it has been discussed by the Literary Ladies. And I really am dying – perhaps I’d do better to say, eager – to talk about this book.
Her Fearful Symmetry is much concerned with London’s famous Highgate Cemetery, burial place of Karl Marx, among others.
The novel’s title caused me to revisit ” The Tyger” by William Blake:
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night :
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears :
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger, Tyger burning bright
In the forests of the night :
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
Audrey Niffenegger is the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, which I have not read, but may do now.
A final word on Her Fearful Symmetry and “I Made Another Garden:” It is not so easy to banish the dead.
“The literary couple…is a peculiar English domestic manufacture, useful no doubt in a country with difficult winters.”* — Parallel Lives, by Phyllis Rose (with a brief poetical digression)
This will not – cannot! – be a lengthy review, filled with details and anecdote about Rose’s fascinating subjects. I wish it could be. I read this book several months ago, so even though it is bristling with post-it flags, many of the particulars have faded from memory. What has not faded is the rapturous sense of revelation that I experienced while reading it.
What follows are some of the high points – for this reader, at least – of Parallel Lives:
The b0ok is subtitled “Five Victorian Marriages.” The dramatis personae are as follows: Jane Welsh and Thomas Carlyle, Effie Gray and John Ruskin, Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill, Catherine Hogarth and Charles Dickens, and George Eliot and George Henry Lewes. Theses unions range from fraught (the Carlyles) to disastrous (the Ruskins) to radiantly happy (George Eliot and George Henry Lewes).
After a lengthy courtship, Jane Welsh finally agreed to wed Thomas Carlyle. She had a request, though: Could her widowed mother live with them? Jane was an only child and did not want to her mother to be bereft when she herself left home to marry. (Her beloved physician father had died when Jane was eighteen.)
Up until this time, Carlyle had been in ardent and tender pursuit of his beloved. But once Jane had accepted him, his demeanor altered radically. He immediately raised an objection to her entreaty: “Mrs Welsh, as the older party, might think the household was hers to rule, whereas in fact, man was born to command and woman to obey.” The author then comments drily: “His [Carlyle's] metamorphosis from humble suitor to arrogant cock of the walk is distressing.” The reader will agree, this transformation does not bode well. And so it proved.
In a different source, I found this quotation, attributed to Samuel Butler, concerning the Carlyle-Welsh union: “It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs Carlyle marry one another, and so make only two people miserable and not four.”
But there’s worse to come…
Anecdotal evidence holds that when John Ruskin beheld his bride Effie Gray as God made her, on their wedding night, he was so appalled that he was unable consummate their relationship. What did he see that so disgusted him? Apparently, the problem stemmed from the fact that John Ruskin had never before seen a woman nude. Passionate art lover that he was, he’d seen plenty of representations of the female form, both in portraiture and sculpture. But, especially as regards classical statuary, certain details of the female anatomy tended to be glossed over… or, should I say, smoothed over…
At any rate, one receives a rather astonishing image of Ruskin fleeing the premises after laying eyes on what was, after all, a perfectly prosaic feature of the female anatomy – and the male’s too, for that matter. (I don’t mean to be coy here – in case you haven’t guessed, we’re talking about pubic hair.)
And so this marriage-that-was-not-a-marriage limped along. Eventually, the Ruskins befriended the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everitt Millais. Millais used Effie as a model for one of his most famous works. In it, he depicts an event that occurs during the Jacobite Rebellion. A wife is conveying a release order to her husband’s jailer:
The painting’s title, “The Order of Release,” turned out to be prophetic. Eventually Effie divorced Ruskin (though it was technically an annulment) and married Millais. With that act, she went from a frustrating, sexless marriage to one that was rich and fruitful: together, she and Millais had eight children.
(Obtaining a divorce in early Victorian Britain was no easy thing. Until the passage of the Matrimonial Causes Act in 1857, the only legal way to dissolve a marriage was through an Act of Parliament!)
The painting of Effie Gray just above the photo of Ruskin came to light only recently. Click here for the story.
Here is Phyllis Rose’s summation concerning Charles Dickens and his numbingly miserable marriage to Catherine Hogarth:
‘…it must be said that Dickens seems to have learned little about himself from his sufferings–and less about the suffering of others. As he transferred all the blame to his wife in the matter of his marriage, he blamed most of his woes in later life on his male children, accusing them of shiftlessness and lack of energy, which they had inherited–as he thought–from their mother. Dickens’s emotional development is not inspirational. It is a story of survival merely and proves only, as Jung said about his own reprehensible behavior to a younf woman, that sometimes it is necessary to be unworthy in order to continue living.
I shared this passage with my husband, who exclaimed in astonishment: “This is THE Charles Dickens?” Alas, yes. Some writers who depict wonderful and compassionate characters so memorably in their fiction are not invariably wonderful and compassionate themselves. The life and work of Tolstoy further illustrate this syndrome.
The union of Marian Evans (who wrote under the pen name George Eliot) and George Henry Lewes is an altogether different story:
‘If ever a couple was united in purpose it was Marian Evans and George Henry Lewes, dedicated to Duty, to Work, to Love, spreading warmth and light from their domestic hearth in the most approved style of Victorian domestic fiction. They were the perfect married couple.
Only one small technicality mars this otherwise blissful portrait: these two loving individuals were in fact not legally married. It was not possible for them to be wed in the law for the simple reason that Lewes already had a wife. (And his domestic entanglements make for some fascinating reading.) Rose can scarcely stop herself from extolling the virtues of this rare partnership:
‘By turning their backs on the search for happiness in their daily lives, by committing themselves to each other, to their work, and to Duty, the Leweses managed to be as happy together for the twenty-four years they lived together as any two people I have heard of outside fantasy literature.
The author seems to be saying that here, in this exemplary mode of living, lies a lesson for us all.
George Henry Lewes died in 1878 at the age of sixty. But Marian Evans’s marital history does not end at that point. In her bereavement, and with the usual matters of estate to attend to, she found herself relying increasingly on a forty-year-old banker named John Walter Cross. Their mutual attachment grew: “Cross was young. He was useful. He worshipped her.” And he too was grieving, having recently lost his mother to whom he’d been deeply attached. Despite the age difference – Marian Evans was nearly sixty years old – she married John Cross in 1880.
In her youth, Marian Evans believed herself to be homely and unattractive. She never expected to find fulfillment in love, so the flowering of her relationship with Lewes must have seemed something of a miracle. It was in part due to his support and encouragement that we have some of the great masterpieces of Victorian fiction:
Although Daniel Deronda not usually ranked with the three works pictured above, I’m partial to this novel for two reasons. First, it has a Zionist theme, rather unusual in the mainstream fiction of the time (although one also encounters it is Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe). Secondly, one of the novel’s centerpieces is a marriage founded on deceit and lies and described in excruciating and memorable detail.
In Parallel Lives, Phyllis Rose writes from an acknowledged feminist perspective, but I am deeply impressed by the evenhanded treatment of her subject matter. She states that her aim “…has not been to show that Dickens or Ruskin or Carlyle were ‘bad’ husbands, but to present them as examples of behavior generated inevitably by the peculiar privileges and stresses of traditional marriage.” In her summing up at the book’s conclusion, she evokes Erik Erikson’s concept of ‘mutuality:’
‘Erikson warns that to approach any human encounter in a demanding spirit is to solicit disappointment. We can never be given enough. But if we ask only to give, to nurture and strengthen someone else, we will find ourselves strengthened in the process. In a marriage that works well, one person’s needs strengthen–do not deplete–the vitality of the partner who responds to them….”
Parallel Lives was published in 1983. I’ve known about it since then and have always meant to read it. So why now? Professor Patrick Allitt includes it in his bibliography for Victorian Britain, an audio course from The Teaching Company. Thank you, Professor Allitt, for your lively and engaging narration! Here is the teacher we all wish we could have had in college (though graduate of Goucher College that I am, I did have several professors of that caliber: Barton L. Houseman for chemistry; Wolfgang Thormann for French; William Mueller and Brooke Peirce for English…ah, those were the days…O I have fallen into a reverie, have I not – please excuse…Ah well, if you’ll indulge me just a moment longer, Dear Reader…
When I was studying French in college, I carelessly remarked to the aforementioned Professor Thormann that I had never really been moved by French poetry. He looked at me with disbelieving eyes and then proceeded to recite from memory this poem by Paul Verlaine:
Il pleure dans mon coeur.
Il pleure dans mon coeur
Comme il pleut sur la ville ;
Quelle est cette langueur
Qui pénètre mon coeur ?
Ô bruit doux de la pluie
Par terre et sur les toits !
Pour un coeur qui s’ennuie,
Ô le chant de la pluie !
Il pleure sans raison
Dans ce coeur qui s’écoeure.
Quoi ! nulle trahison ?…
Ce deuil est sans raison.
C’est bien la pire peine
De ne savoir pourquoi
Sans amour et sans haine
Mon coeur a tant de peine !
I was, of course, duly chastened, an experience much needed by your basic undergraduate!
Click here and scroll down for the English translation of this poem.)
For more information about the individuals discussed above – and for a rich source on all things Victorian – go to The Victorian Web.
I wonder if Katie Roiphe used Rose’s book as a model for her own highly engaging work, Uncommon Arrangements.
*Phyllis Rose is here quoting Elizabeth Hardwick, from the latter’s essay, “George Eliot’s Husband.”
Caves of ice, caves of ice…where did that come from? Oh yes – “Kubla Khan,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!” Nothing sunny about this day, alas, although rumor has it that we might see that Blessed Orb tomorrow.
The story goes that while Coleridge was in the midst of writing this poem, he was interrupted by a man who had come from Porlock on some pedestrian errand. When Coleridge had rid himself of this intruder, he found himself unable to continue work on this poem. Thus “Kubla Khan” is usually referred to as a fragment – but what a glorious fragment it is, with its hallucinatory visions and glimpses of a mysterious unseen world.
Then I was reminded of a scene from the Inspector Morse film Twilight of the Gods. Morse, played by John Thaw, has almost completed a crossword puzzle when Lewis (Kevin Whately) interrupts him. Irritated, Morse tells Lewis that he’s “the person from Porlock.” Lewis, whose literalness was always one of his most endearing traits, replies “No, Sir, Newcastle.”
Here’s the final scene from that film. It serves as a vivid reminder of what we lost with the passing of John Thaw:
Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He who can call today his own:
He who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.
Be fair or foul or rain or shine
The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.
Not Heaven itself upon the past has power,
But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.
(Odes, Book 3, Verse 29)
Here is the original Latin:
ille potens sui
laetusque deget, cui licet in diem
dixisse “vixi: cras vel atra
nube polum Pater occupato
vel sole puro; non tamen irritum,
quodcumque retro est, efficiet neque
diffinget infectumque reddet,
quod fugiens semel hora vexit.
As I make my (mesmerized) way through Hilary Mantel’s historical novel Wolf Hall, I have encountered, among the throng of characters peopling this fast-paced, harrowing narrative, Sir Thomas Wyatt. Wyatt wrote one of my favorite sonnets:
THE LOVER DESPAIRING TO ATTAIN UNTO
HIS LADY’S GRACE RELINQUISHETH THE PURSUIT.
Whoso list to hunt ? I know where is an
But as for me, alas ! I may no more,
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore ;
I am of them that furthest come behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer ; but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow ; I leave off therefore,
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt
As well as I, may spend his time in vain !
And graven with diamonds in letters plain,
There is written her fair neck round about ;
‘ Noli me tangere ; for Cæsar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.’
I love the concluding couplet. How powerfully it conveys the extreme danger of the poet’s quest! In Wolf Hall, the reader discovers the identity of the object of this anguished expression of subjugated longing.
In the process of composing this post, I stumbled upon Luminarium. I could spend days – nay, weeks or months exploring this content!
Up until I began reading Wolf Hall, I was deeply engrossed in the Victorians. This preoccupation came about as a result of listening to Patrick Allitt lecturing on the subject (The Teaching Company: Victorian Britain). In Part One of this series, Professor Allitt begins by discoursing on what he terms “the Victorian paradox.” From there, he moves on to the life and character of Queen Victoria. Next comes fascinating lectures on the industrial revolution and parliamentary reform. These are followed by several even more fascinating lectures on women in the Victorian era. Professor Allitt then moves on to the religious life – and strife – of the Victorians.
Finally, he comes to the subject of poverty and the working conditions in mines, mills, and factories and the diseases endemic to those who toiled there, including children. This section was a veritable catalog of horrors. Although I was listening alone in the car, I nevertheless could not refrain from exclaiming aloud, viz. “What – how atrocious! How could they!”
At that point, I though I had “supped full with horrors” – and then the Professor described the ghastly treatment of the chimney sweeps. (See “Ideas of Childhood in Victorian Children’s Fiction” from the incredibly rich site Victorian Web; and “Pity the Poor Chimney Sweeps” from Suite 101. )
So now I am silently begging, no more, no more…and we come to the potato famine in Ireland.
At one point in this appalling litany, Professor Allitt comments to the effect that Victorian Britain was obviously “not all Masterpiece Theatre.” This would be one of the major understatements I have ever heard in my entire life!
Each of the Teaching Company’s Great Courses comes with a booklet containing, among other resources, an excellent bibliography compiled by the lecturer. As per Professor Allitt’s suggestion, I have so far obtained (though not yet read): . Henry Mayhew was a journalist whose descriptions of, and interviews with, the poor of London deeply impressed his contemporaries, among them Charles Dickens. In this poignant excerpt, he describes the life of a young girl who sells watercress on the city’s streets.
Heaven’s Command is the first in a trilogy about the British Empire. I wasn’t really interested in that aspect of nineteenth century Britain – I wanted to read about conditions within the country itself. But reading the first few pages I found Jan Morris’s writing so beautiful that I may have to rethink my reading plan. Morris has just come out with a new book, Contact!: A Book of Encounters, due out here in April of 2010. She is now 83 years old!
As I was listening spellbound to Victorian Britain, the phrase “the dark Satanic mills” was constantly floating to my mind’s surface. It comes from this poem by William Blake, written in 1808 or thereabouts:
And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold:
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.
This poem was set to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916 and orchestrated by Sir Edward Elgar in 1922. (Wikipedia has an interesting account of how and why this sequence of events came about.)
Here is the Hymn, “Jerusalem”:
In a post on my recent sojourn to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I mentioned being stunned by the Greek vases in the Greek and Roman Art galleries. Since this past May, when I journeyed to Naples, a city first colonized by the Greeks in the 700′s BC, I’ve become newly fascinated by the literature of the classical period. Now I was face to face with the art produced, in some cases, in the same period. I had not anticipated the effect these works would have on me.
My first thought – when I was able to think again – was of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: specifically, the words, ‘O attic shape, fair attitude.’
Here is the entire poem:
Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thou express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunt about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter: therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
These astonishing works of art, which in earlier visits to the Met I have always sailed right past, cheerfully distracted and oblivious, now seem to me the most miraculous of objects, and for just the reasons that Keats cites in his poem: their timelessness, their freezing of a moment in time, their promise of eternal youth, of an eternity of bucolic joy in a setting devoid of any hint of ugliness.
The section of the Met’s collection database that deals with these works is entitled: “Athenian Vase Painting: Black- and Red-Figure Techniques.”
When I told my New York friend Helene about my new-found fascination with Greek vases, she, who has tutored me in love of the arts almost my entire life, smiled and said, “Keats knew something, huh?” Oh yes, he did – with his tenuous hold on life, Keats knew.