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.

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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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Ode

December 21, 2010 at 9:13 pm (Family, Poetry)

These words from William Wordsworth’s magnificent poem have been with me constantly since the birth of Etta Lin:

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!

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End of summer crime fiction roundup: some good reading here

September 5, 2010 at 1:13 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Poetry, The British police procedural)

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.]

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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.

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Other Brock and Kolla novels I’ve enjoyed:

This is my favorite, so far.

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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.

Exactly.

One final observation: there’s a bit of misdirection toward the novel’s climax that really threw me off the scent – very cunning!

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Other favorite novels by John Harvey:

I particularly enjoyed this standalone about crime in the art world.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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