A Sultry Month by Alethea Hayter

August 12, 2019 at 7:48 pm (Anglophilia, Art, London, Poetry)

  One of my favorite books from the past few years is a nonfiction work entitled: A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846.

To begin with, Alethea Hayter’s powers of description are  formidable. They are shown in full spate in this passage, in which she brings the Duke of Wellington’s annual Waterloo Banquet to vivid life:

The low sunset light of that fiercely hot day came in through the six westward-facing windows of the Waterloo Gallery, competing with the light of the serried candles in the candelabra of the huge silver-gilt Portuguese Service, crowded with dancing nymphs, allegorical  figures of the Continents, camels, horses, scorpions, which stretched the whole length of the table. The colors were all fierce and bright–scarlet uniforms, shining white tablecloth, harsh yellow damask on the walls staring out between the crowded frames of the pictures captured in Joseph Bonaparte’s carriage at the Battle of Vittoria.

There was gold and sheen everywhere–gilding on the doors and ceiling, shutters lines with looking-glass, epaulettes, decanters, medals, picture frames, chandeliers, everything glared and glittered….

A Sultry Month has a wonderful cast of characters: Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, poets who against all odds made their love triumphant; John Keats, whose brief stay on Earth left us with much memorable verse; the Carlyles, Jane and Thomas, William Wordsworth, Charles Lamb and Mary Lamb – the list goes on. But perhaps the most memorable among them is a painter of whom I had not previously heard. His name is Benjamin Robert Haydon.

There is a genre of painting  called history painting. The term refers not only to depictions of historical events but also to scenes from mythology and religion.  The works were usually large, colorful, and action-packed. The Abduction of the Sabine Women (1635-1640) by Peter Paul Rubens is a good example:

By the nineteenth century, this type of subject matter was increasingly deemed outmoded, especially in England, where it had never really taken hold to begin with. But Benjamin Robert Haydon believed passionately in its relevance and its rightness. He worked steadily and, some would say, stubbornly to embody the best aspects of history painting in his own art.

In 1817, Haydon gave a dinner party which, over the years has achieved a unique sort of fame. In attendance at this gathering were all of the luminaries mentioned above: Keats, Wordsworth, the Lambs brother and sister, the Carlyles, and others. Haydon had two purposes in presenting this entertainment. He wanted to introduce young Keats to the venerable Wordsworth, and he wanted all the guests to see his rather fabulous, if somewhat bizarre, canvas entitled Christ Entering Jerusalem.

The bizarre aspect stems from the fact that Haydon has included small portraits of his present day friends in this work. If you look closely at the three men at the extreme right, you can see Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, and Keats. (I’m pretty sure that the figure with the slightly bowed head is Wordsworth.) Apparently other of Haydon’s friends and acquaintances are also represented therein. Few of these individuals were particularly religious.

The occasion was a great success, at least in the eyes of the host. This is what he wrote about it later in his autobiography:

It was indeed an immortal evening. Wordsworth’s fine intonation as he quoted Milton and Virgil, Keats’ eager inspired look, Lamb’s quaint sparkle of lambent humour, so speeded the stream of conversation, that in my life I never passed a more delightful time. All our fun was within bounds. Not a word passed that an apostle might not have listened to. It was a night worthy of the Elizabethan age, and my solemn Jerusalem flashing up by the flame of the fire, with Christ hanging over us like a vision, all made up a picture which will long glow upon

“that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude.”

Haydon began writing his autobiography in 1839. He was still working on it at the time of his death in 1846. I think it quite marvelous that he quotes from “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” also known as “Daffodils,” a poem written by his  friend Wordsworth in 1804.

Portrait of Wordsworth by Benjamin Robert Haydon, 1842

 

Manuscript copy of “Daffodils,” held at the British Museum

There are at least two other books about Haydon’s “Immortal Dinner:” The Immortal Evening: A Legendary Dinner with Keats, Wordsworth, and Lamb by Stanley Plumly (2014), and The Immortal Dinner: A Famous Evening of Genius and Laughter in Literary London, 1817, by Penelope Hughes-Hallett (2002).

[A footnote, but an interesting one: Charles Lamb was a distinguished essayist. He is probably best remembered today for Tales of Shakespeare, on which he collaborated with his sister Mary. Mary was mentally unstable; in 1796, while experiencing a severe breakdown – what today we would probably call a psychotic break – she stabbed her mother to death with a kitchen knife. Charles remained devoted to his sister until his death in 1834. Peter Ackroyd’s novel The Lambs of London vividly recreates the turbulent events surrounding this calamity.]

I was completely spellbound by A Sultry Month; I look forward to reading it again.

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“How do you like to go up in a swing, / Up in the air so blue?”

July 3, 2019 at 8:05 pm (Family, Poetry)

How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!

Up in the air and over the wall,
Till I can see so wide,
Rivers and trees and cattle and all
Over the countryside—

Till I look down on the garden green,
Down on the roof so brown—
Up in the air I go flying again,
Up in the air and down!

“The Swing,” poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, from A Child’s Garden of Verses

Robert Louis ‘Stevenson 1850-1894

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Swinging by Welles, age 5!!!

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A day at Washington’s National Gallery, Part One: The Little Dyer and his Outsized Genius

May 12, 2019 at 4:20 pm (Art, Poetry)

Summer 1555

 

The Creation of the Animals 1551-52

 

The Marriage of Bacchus and Ariadne 1576/1577

Tintoretto’s father was named Battista Comin. Because of his fearlessness in battle, he earned the nickname ‘Robusti’ – the Robust One. Upon completing his military service, he took up the profession of cloth dyer – tintore di panni. His son Jacopo thus became known by the diminutive, Tiintoretto.

Okay, so having gotten that out of the way….

The above art works are among my favorites from the National Gallery’s spectacular exhibit. I was in the process of determining the date(s) of The Marriage of Bacchus and Ariadne when I chanced on a poem written about the painting by one Michael Field. Here it is:

Tintoretto

The Ducal Palace at Venice

Dark sea-water round a shape
Hung about the loins with grape,
Hair the vine itself, in braids
On the brow—thus Bacchus wades
Through the water to the shore.
Strange to deck with hill-side store
Limbs that push against the tide ;
Strange to gird a wave-washed side
Foam should spring at and entwine—
Strange to burthen it with vine.

He has left the trellised isle,
Left the harvest vat awhile,
Left the Maenads of his troop,
Left his Fauns’ midsummer group
And his leopards far behind,
By lone Dia’s coast to find
Her whom Theseus dared to mock.
Queenly on the samphire rock
Ariadne sits, one hand
Stretching forth at Love’s command.

Love is poised above the twain,
Zealous to assuage the pain
In that stately woman’s breast ;
Love has set a starry crest
On the once dishonoured head ;
Love entreats the hand to wed,
Gently loosening out the cold
Fingers toward that hoop of gold
Bacchus, tremblingly content
To be patient, doth present.

In his eyes there is the pain
Shy, dumb passions can attain
In the valley, on the skirt
Of lone mountains, pine-begirt ;
Yearning pleasure such as pleads
In dark wine that no one heeds
Till the feast is ranged and lit.
But his mouth—what gifts in it !
Though the round lips do not dare
Aught to proffer, save a prayer.

Is he not a mendicant
Who has almost died of want ?
Through far countries he has roved,
Blessing, blessing, unbeloved ;
Therefore is he come in weed
Of a mortal bowed by need,
With the bunches of the grape
As sole glory round his shape :
For there is no god that can
Taste of pleasure save as man.

I had not heard of this particular poet and so set about doing further research. The facts came to light quite readily.

This is Michael Field:

Under this pseudonym, Katherine Harris Bradley (1846-1914), left, and her niece and ward Edith Emma Cooper (1862-1913) published numerous works of poetry and drama and kept a lengthy journal entitled Works and Days. More information on these two can be found on Wikipedia and on the Poetry Foundation site.

For me, one of the chief joys of the internet consists in discovering unexpected linkages like this.

And never fear – There’s more Tintoretto to come…

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Best of 2018, Four: Nonfiction, part two

December 27, 2018 at 2:03 pm (Art, Best of 2018, Book review, books, Poetry)

So I’m getting ready to divide my 2018 nonfiction reading into neat categories, and I run into trouble right away. Some of these books are hard to pigeonhole: they’re sort-of biographies, sort-of true crime – was there actually a crime? – and, well, you get the idea.

  The only more or less conventional biography I read this year was Gainsborough: A Portrait, by James Hamilton. As is the case with the most engaging biographies, the life of this distinguished  artist was set vividly within the context of his times.

Almost exactly ten years later, a well-dressed, brisk and persistent gentleman called on a friend of his in London. There was nobody at home, just the servant. On the table was a small landscape painting which caught the man’s attention. He picked it up, looked at it closely, turned it over. ‘Ruisdael improved,’ he thought to himself. ‘Warmer colouring, as truly drawn and painted as Ruisdael, but more spirited.’ It was quite clear from the back of the canvas that this was a new, modern picture, not Dutch seventeenth century. The following conversation was published in 1772:

‘James, where did your master get this picture?’

‘At the auctioneers Langford’s, sir, I have just brought it home.’

‘Do you know whose it is?’ ‘My master’s, sir.’

‘Fool! I mean the painter.’ There was a knock at the door. James let his master in.

‘Who painted that picture?’ demanded the visitor. ‘Who do you think?’ replied his friend. ‘Don’t know, tell me instantly!’ ‘Come, come – you are a judge of pictures, and a bit of a painter yourself. It’s a gem, isn’t it?’

The visitor was even more intrigued.

‘You will like it so much more when I tell you it is painted by an artist who is unknown, unfollowed, and unencouraged.’

‘What’s his name?’

‘Gainsborough.’

 

Mary Little, later Lady Carr

 

Portrait of the Composer Carl Friedrich Abel with his Viola da Gamba (c. 1765)

 

Road from Market

Oh, those trees!

*********************

Three fascinating women figure in this narrative: Emily Dickinson, Mabel Loomis Todd, the lover of Emily’s brother Austin, and Millicent Todd Bingham, daughter of Mabel and her husband David Todd.

After Emily begins with Emily Dickinson’s funeral.

“And in the spring, also rare Emily Dickinson died & went back into a little deeper mystery than that she has always lived in. The sweet spring days have something in all their tender beauty when she was carried through the daisies and buttercups across the summer fields to be in her flowered couch,” Mabel later reflected in her journal. “It was a very great sorrow to Austin, but I have lived through greater with him, when little Gib [Austin’s son] died. He and I are so one that we comfort each other for everything, perfectly.”

There follows a furious nonstop battle over who owns the rights to her works. The story of the love affair of her brother and Mabel Loomis Todd is unexpected and remarkable. The fallout from it is significant, even profound. If you’re wondering whether Emily knew, she did – and did and said nothing, apparently.

But over and above the events of the narrative hovers the restless spirit of  that reclusive, brilliant poet:

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.
——-
We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –
————-
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –
————–
Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –
————
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –
————
Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –
—————-

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After Emily, by Julie Dobrow

November 25, 2018 at 4:29 pm (Book review, books, Poetry)

    After Emily is subtitled: Two Remarkable Women and the Legacy of America’s Greatest Poet. The two women were Mabel Loomis Todd and her daughter Millicent Todd Bingham.

Yes, they were both remarkable. Although they strove relentlessly for the same goal – the publication in full of Emily Dickinson’s poems and letters – their temperaments could not have been more unlike. Mabel Loomis Todd was ambitious, outspoken, and gifted in many areas of endeavor: art, writing, and music among them. In an era of almost Victorian restraint, she was unabashedly sensual. Finally, into the bargain, she was beautiful. 

Author Julie Dobrow describes trips to far flung locales where Mabel’s astronomer husband David Peck Todd made fruitless attempts to observe a total eclipse. (The skies invariably clouded over at the crucial moment.). But this is really an Amherst story. In 1881, David secured a position as astronomy professor at Amherst College. David and Mabel began socializing with the Dickinson family, who were prominent members of the community.

Emily Dickinson and her sister Lavinia lived at the Homestead, where they cared for their elderly, ailing mother until her death in 1882. Their brother Austin, his wife Susan, and their three children lived close  by. When Mabel Loomis Todd and her husband David moved to Amherst, they rented a house not far  from the Dickinson domiciles. Indeed, Amherst was a relatively small village; no one lived very far from anyone else.

This fact greatly facilitated the relationship between Mabel Loomis Todd and William Austin Dickinson. That relationship swiftly moved from friendship to love affair – a fervent bond only lightly concealed by Mabel and Austin. It continued, only growing in intensity for nearly thirteen years, up until Austin’s death in 1895.

Mabel’s husband David was among those who knew about the affair. He was the epitome of the complaisant spouse, allowing his wife and her lover plenty of space in which to pursue their desires. Not so Austin’s wife. Susan Dickinson was the very epitome of the Woman Scorned. Her fury extended well beyond Austin’s death. It had a perverse and lasting effect on efforts to make the poetry and letters of Emily Dickinson available to the reading public.

In fact it is the story of those efforts, doggedly pursued by Mabel and then taken up by her daughter Millicent, that takes up the bulk of this narrative, particularly its latter half. It is a very complex tale, involving copyright and other legal issues. At times, it was hard not to get bogged down. Yet I was held, especially by the depiction of the strange complexity of the relationship between Mabel and Millicent, a rapport not helped by the fact that the latter was left in the care of her distant grandparents for long stretches of time. Like her mother, Millicent had a restless, brilliant intellect; among her many achievements, she was the first woman to obtain a doctorate in geology and geography from Harvard University. Unlike her mother, she was of a conservative bent. It took her a long time to fully come to terms with Mabel’s and Austin’s connection to each other. But eventually she became reconciled to its truth, even its legitimacy.

On the surface, Millicent Todd Bingham would seem less interesting than her colorful, flamboyant, and strong willed mother. Yet in a way, Millicent is the more admirable of the two, seeing the value of Mabel’s quest, adopting as her own, and ultimately seeing through to completion.

Finally, one comes  full circle, returning to the wellspring of this somewhat tortured narrative, to the elusive, reclusive genius that was Emily Dickinson. Of the many poems that I am familiar with, this is the one that haunts me the most:

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 –
Regardless grown,
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 –

The first edition of poems by Emily Dickinson, published in 1890

 

 

 

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The eclipse at our house, with a poetical digression

August 23, 2017 at 4:22 pm (Art, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Poetry)

We were forewarned that in central Maryland, the eclipse would not be total. We weren’t expecting much, and frankly we didn’t get much. That’s not to say we didn’t try. And the sun was, in fact, shining – a happenstance not at all dependable here in the Old Line State.

We didn’t have  the special glasses and so did not gaze directly at the phenomenon. We were able to see this indicator, though, as the light penetrating through the leaves of the tree in our  front yard provided a sort of pin hole camera effect:

You will no doubt be impressed by the delicately calibrated scientific instrument that we also made use of:

At any rate, here was the sun once again, yesterday morning, being normal in our backyard:

Being of a literary turn of mind (and an incorrigible English major from way back),, I wish to cite three poetical allusions. The first is famous:

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

Oh, thanks to thee, Shakespeare, for having words of beauty and meaning for every occasion.

And  then there’s John Donne, who in his poem “The Sun Rising”, is not praising the sun but chastising it. (Imagine scolding the sun! But then, lovers can  be a pretty cheeky lot):

Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices,
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

Thy beams, so reverend and strong
Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long;
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,
Whether both th’ Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay.

She’s all states, and all princes, I,
Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honor’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world’s contracted thus.
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.

Finally there is W.H. Auden’s meditation on the sad fate of the too-audacious Icarus (and by implication the rest of us, sooner or later). This poem, titled “Musee des Beaux Arts,” was inspired by Auden’s viewing of Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

 

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555 (oil on canvas) by Bruegel, Pieter the Elder (c.1525-69) [Click to enlarge]

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“‘What species of utterance is this?'”

August 30, 2016 at 11:43 pm (Anglophilia, Poetry)

On Saturday August 27, this letter appeared in the Washington Post:

While reading the first paragraph of Michael Dirda’s review of Edwin Greenwood’s “The Deadly Dowager” [“The largely forgotten mystery that should be in your beach bag,” Style, Aug. 18], I slipped the sordid and mundane bonds of the present. The distant life of ideas, which brings solace and meaning to a brutish world, peeked for a moment over the dark horizon like an unannounced sunrise.

Most of us leave that life behind when we leave school. We forget about poetry and literature and lofty thoughts; we forget how much they lighten the load of being and bring order to chaos; we become poorer.

For a few moments, I felt rich and young again. “What species of utterance is this?” Ode or elegy, it is the only one that lasts.

Thanks go to Dirda for that tiny glance back to the ivory tower, a relic of which I still carry near my heart.

Lynn Peterson Mobley, Great Falls

My first thought was that the phrase “the sordid and mundane bonds of the present” had a familiar ring. It put me in mind of Ronald Reagan. Research took me to Reagan’s address to the nation on the occasion of the Challenger tragedy. The President concluded that speech with the following words:

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”

Those phrases are taken from a poem entitled “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee June 9, 1922 – December 11, 1941

John Gillespie Magee June 9, 1922 – December 11, 1941

Reagan’s address on that terrible occasion was a model of grace and clarity. The story of how it came to be written – under pressure and at a moment of extreme urgency – is quite interesting. It made a star out of the (young and inexperienced) woman from whose pen it issued.

As for Lynn Peterson Mobley’s letter, I am in awe of the beauty of expression that she summoned therein. I could not agree with her more about “poetry and literature and lofty thoughts.” I too had a college experience in which those values were paramount. At Goucher College, I was fortunate enough as an English major to have world class professors to teach and inspire me:

Professor William Hedges on American Literature
Professor William Mueller on Existentialism
Professor Brooke Peirce on Shakespeare and poetry of the English Enlightenment

Decades later, I remain deeply thankful for this experience.

The poetry  that resonates most deeply with me right now (as I seek  for ways to return to Great Britain) is A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad.

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

I’ve read two novels entitled An Air That Kills. One is the first entry in Andrew Taylor’s fine Lydmouth series; the other is by Margaret Millar.

airkills2 6a00e009989f8f8833016766f7b9cd970b-600wi

Having traveled to Shropshire and the incredibly beautiful Welsh border country in 2011, I gained a vivid appreciation of how much A Shropshire Lad means to the British people. While in a bookshop in one of the towns we passed through, I bought a beautiful new edition of the poem.

IMG_20160830_104603

IMG_20160830_115720

IMG_20160830_104444

Is My Team Ploughing

By A. E. Housman

“Is my team ploughing,
That I was used to drive
And hear the harness jingle
When I was man alive?”

Ay, the horses trample,
The harness jingles now;
No change though you lie under
The land you used to plough.

“Is football playing
Along the river shore,
With lads to chase the leather,
Now I stand up no more?”

Ay the ball is flying,
The lads play heart and soul;
The goal stands up, the keeper
Stands up to keep the goal.

“Is my girl happy,
That I thought hard to leave,
And has she tired of weeping
As she lies down at eve?”

Ay, she lies down lightly,
She lies not down to weep:
Your girl is well contented.
Be still, my lad, and sleep.

“Is my friend hearty,
Now I am thin and pine,
And has he found to sleep in
A better bed than mine?”

Yes, lad, I lie easy,
I lie as lads would choose;
I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart,
Never ask me whose.

The Poetry Foundation site has an excellent biography of Housman.

Alfred Edward Housman 1859-1936

Alfred Edward Housman 1859-1936

This edition of A Shropshire Lad was published by Merlin Unwin Books in 2009 on the occasion of 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth.

I like the short commentary on the Naxos Audiobook site:

In A Shropshire Lad, A.E. Housman recreates a nostalgic world of lost love, lost youth, thwarted friendships, unfaithful girls, male bonding, untimely death and the uncertain glories of being a soldier. The poems deal with the exuberance of youth – its aspirations and disappointments, its naïve certainties and tragic mistakes. Though written in 1895, it struck a chord with the generation of young men who fought in World War I. It was said that every ‘Tommy’ had a copy in his knapsack. It has never been out of print.

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True crime research: discoveries made along the way

February 15, 2015 at 3:33 pm (Poetry, True crime)

 

Internet Archive maintains  a digitized (and searchable) pulp magazine archive:

TrueDetective03-30_0000

pulps

Pulps2

Google Books has digitized some interesting (and quite old) titles, such as The Record of Crime in the United States and The Triumphe of God’s Revenge Against  the Crying and Execrable Sin of Murther.

In an interview with The Library of America, publisher of True Crime: An American Anthology, Harold Schechter refers to a poem by Emily Dickinson called “One need not be a Chamber to be Haunted”

One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—
One need not be a House—
The Brain has Corridors—surpassing
Material Place—

Far safer, of a Midnight Meeting
External Ghost
Than its interior Confronting—
That Cooler Host.

Far safer, through an Abbey gallop,
The Stones a’chase—
Than Unarmed, one’s a’self encounter—
In lonesome Place—

Ourself behind ourself, concealed—
Should startle most—
Assassin hid in our Apartment
Be Horror’s least.

The Body—borrows a Revolver—
He bolts the Door—
O’erlooking a superior spectre—
Or More—

Once again I am stunned by the brilliance and audacity of Dickinson – but should I be? This is, after all, the woman who wrote “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun -”

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 Sovreign 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
Opon the Valley glow –
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let it’s 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 –

For me, the meaning of  this poem is somewhat opaque, yet there is no mistaking the power of those last two lines.
Before I close, some words of praise for Harold Schechter: Not all academics write in a way that is appealing and accessible to the common reader. Harold Schechter can and does. His writing is a felicitous combination of erudition, grace, and wit
***************************
And so here I am, down to the wire in regard to “Stranger Than Fiction: The Literature of True Crime.” I’m teaching this class for Osher at Johns Hopkins University, a lifelong learning institute with three campus locations in this region. Fortunately, one of them is right here in Howard County.  (Click here to view the course catalog that includes the course to be taught by Yours Truly.)

I feel as though it’s taken a veritable army of supporters to assist me in this endeavor. Thanks to Pauline for recruiting me and offering me constant help and encouragement. Deep gratitude is due my husband for helping with the technology. Classroom teaching has undergone a quiet revolution in that sphere since my absence from the scene, and I’ve had to learn a great deal in a relatively short time span. Ron has been the most tireless and patient of teachers.

Barring any weather-related problems, I make my ‘debut’ tomorrow morning. Wish me luck.

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Irish Evening 2011 surpasses expectations

February 20, 2011 at 4:09 am (books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Music, Poetry)

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

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

Left to right: Jesse Winch, Tony DeMarco, Terry Winch, Linda Hickman, Dominick Murray. Photo by Judy Bodman.

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.

 

First row, left to right: Terry Winch, Brendan Mulvihill, and Jesse Winch. Above, Linda Hickman and Eileen Korn Estes

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:

SOCIAL SECURITY

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.

The poems he read Friday night were from the collection Boy Drinkers. I loved them and am buying the book.

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“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

January 29, 2011 at 8:28 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Music, Mystery fiction, Poetry)

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.)

Jack Mytton Way, near Rushbury, Wenlock Edge, Shropshire

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 know the Severn is a river, but I did not know that it is Great Britain’s longest. (There is also a Severn River in Anne Arundel County Maryland, just east of where we currently reside.)

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).

 

 

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