A poem by Charles Causley

Why do you turn your head, Susanna,
And why do you swim your eye?
It’s only the children on Bellman Street
Calling, ‘A penny for the guy!’

The underlying theme of nearly all of Charles Causley’s poems is war. World War II in particular, because that was the one that he fought in and the one that left its mark on the 20th century in a way that hardly anybody except Causley seems to have noticed. Charles Causley, like William Blake, wrote about innocence and experience and, like Blake, he used a deceptively simple form of lyric poetry in which to express thoughts which would otherwise have seemed like those of a mad prophet and been ignored. Both poets, to some degree, have been ignored anyway.

Why do you look away, Susanna,
As the children wheel him by?
It’s only a dummy in an old top-hat
And a fancy jacket and tie.

It is impossible not to be reminded, in this late poem by Causley, of the first of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience in which the piper pipes ‘with merry cheer’ and the child listening ‘wept to hear’. Impossible, hearing the irony in Blake’s voice when he tells us that his ‘happy songs’ are songs that ‘every child may joy to hear’, not to think of Causley.

Why do you take my hand, Susanna,
As the pointing flames jump high?
It’s only a bundle of sacking and straw.
Nobody’s going to die.

Halfway through the poem, Causley uses for the first time the line that will end the poem and that now pulls us up with a jerk. If we had not realised already that this is about something more than bonfire night, ‘Nobody’s going to die’ makes us stop and think. What Susanna sees, Susanna the innocent child, is not what the grown-up sees. It is the reverse of Blake’s Nurse’s Song in which the nurse tells the children that their days ‘are wasted in play’ and their ‘winter and night in disguise’. But the meaning is the same. It’s just that Susanna has guessed it already.

Why is your cheek so pale, Susanna,
As the whizzbangs flash and fly?
It’s nothing but a rummage of paper and rag
Strapped to a stick you spy.

By now, if we are alert to the poet’s voice, we see what Susanna sees. We see through the grown-up’s pretence and recognise his reassuring phrases, it’s only this, it’s only that, for what they are. Perhaps we stop and glance back at the first three verses, wondering who the children on Bellman Street really are, why Susanna can’t bear to look at the dummy in the old top-hat, what causes her to be afraid when she sees the flames. Perhaps we notice how Causley, choosing his words carefully, makes Susanna’s reaction each time more disturbing, less easy to ignore. She turns her head, she looks away, she takes his hand and now he sees that her cheek is pale. He goes on trying to reassure her, but the mere fact that he has looked at her and seen how pale she is suggests that he is finding it harder to do so. Pale is a particularly evocative word, especially when applied to a child. From now on, the poet takes her fear more seriously.

Why do you say you hear, Susanna,
The sound of a last, long sigh?
And why do you say it won’t leave your head
No matter how hard you try?

For the first time, in the last verse but one, Susanna speaks. Or rather, the poet speaks for her. What she says transforms her from a child into a memory, a memory of war or, more particularly, what the survivors of war remember but can’t tell. In this poem, as in many others, Causley writes as a survivor. He has heard the ‘last, long sigh’ of dying men and it won’t leave his head no matter how hard he tries. (The slowing down of the line with its three last, long syllables adds to the effect.) There are things that the survivors of war find it difficult to talk about and impossible to forget.

Best let me take you home, Susanna.
Best on your bed to lie.
It’s only a dummy in an old top-hat.
Nobody’s going to die.

Finally, he is left talking to himself. In contrast with the previous verse which, with its run-on lines, is itself a contrast to the others, each line of this verse stands alone. The last two echo earlier lines, the last in particular now achieving its full force. This is a different kind of lie from the one that Wilfred Owen called ‘the old lie’. His was the lie about dying for your country. Of the two, Causley’s is worse. It is a lie of denial. Holocaust denial, Hiroshima denial, Dresden denial, Warsaw denial and all the other denials that came after and are still coming.

Charles Causley stands almost alone among British writers of the second half of the 20th century in not mentioning the war. William Golding, another navy man, tried hard to find his own way of dealing with the things that wouldn’t leave his head but that nobody wanted to talk about. He did it in the fable of Lord of the Flies, in the untold story of Pincher Martin, in the image of the child emerging from the flames that begins Darkness Visible. Otherwise, you might think the war had never happened, which is what Charles Causley’s poetry was all about.

charles causley 02

The next post will be my Reader’s Diary for 24 September.

My subject on 1 October will be John Donne’s cancer diary.

Leave a comment

Filed under Literature

A Reader’s Diary, 10 September 2014

Mark Rutherford was a Victorian novelist unknown to me until a book called The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane caught my eye in a second-hand bookshop. The name turns out to have been a pseudonym. He used two in his first book, The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford, Dissenting Minister, edited by his friend Reuben Shapcott. Hidden behind both false identities was William Hale White, a civil servant in the Admiralty. He was fifty then and, in the next thirty-two years wrote another eight books as Mark Rutherford, the last of them published posthumously in 1915.

The reasons for his subsequent neglect may be inferred from his contemporary admirers, in particular Matthew Arnold, D.H.Lawrence, Joseph Conrad and André Gide, none of whom could be expected to admire a writer for qualities likely to make him popular. For Gide it was his style, for Arnold his religious sensibility, for Conrad his political sensibility, for Lawrence his views on marriage.

The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane is written with a disregard for the conventions of the popular novel as they had developed during the nineteenth century that sets it apart from other writers. The world of the imagination, which most novels inhabit, does not here take the place of the real world or in any way alter it. The reason is given in the first chapter, which introduces the central character, Zachariah Coleman, as a bystander at an event which took place in London on 20th April 1814, when Louis XVIII was greeted by the Prince Regent and cheered by the crowds.

‘There are two factors,’ we are told, ‘in all human bliss – an object and the subject. The object may be a trifle, but the condition of the subject is most important. Turn a man out with his digestion in perfect order, with the spring in the air and in his veins, and he will cheer anything.’

Mark Rutherford remains focused on the object of his writing, leaving the subjects or readers to deal with reality, blissful or otherwise, unaided by any of the usual tricks that writers play. There are no chapters that end where they do for the sake of narrative structure, to create tension or keep the reader guessing. The narrative follows its own course, as life does, not as the novelist chooses. When the setting changes halfway through the book from urban to rural, it is because that is where events have driven Zachariah and that is where the writer must follow him. The alter ego, Mark Rutherford, goes where William Hale White, the ego, tells him to go. Rutherford is employed, as a ghost writer might be, to turn White’s experience of life into a book.

All White knows is that he has something to say about how individual happiness is marred by social inequality, by being married to the wrong person and by the consequences of trying to do something about both of those things in nineteenth century England. Rutherford has a hard task making this into a novel, forbidden as he is by White from changing the facts for the sake of the story. With its cast of dissenting ministers, revolutionaries, emigrés, working men and capitalists, George Eliot could have made it into another Felix Holt if White (who worked with her in the Admiralty when she was still Marian Evans) had offered it to her. But even she would have balked at White’s refusal to let his story be dramatised.

‘Ophelia dies,’ he says, ‘Juliet dies, and we fancy that their fate, although terrible, is more enviable than that of a pauper who drops undramatically on London stones.’ It is a line that, if you didn’t know, you might think came from Jude the Obscure. The undramatic reality is all that interests White, all that he himself has experienced, and that is where the Rutherford style comes from, a style described by Gide as ‘d’une transparence exquise, d’une scintillante pureté’.

The refusal to dramatise gives us, in the end, Waiting for Godot, but along the way it gave us what might be called an undercurrent in English literature, written by an underclass in English society. We might think of Robert Tressell and Walter Greenwood, with The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and Love on the Dole respectively, as his successors. But how many are there of whom we have never heard and how many more who could not even find a publisher for their plain, unadorned accounts of individual lives blighted by an uncaring society?

Thomas Hardy had his battles with publishers and in the end gave up writing novels altogether. William Hale White would never have started if it had not been for his unhappy marriage. In a letter to his second wife (he was nearly eighty and she was thirty-four) he wrote: ‘I wish I had never written stories. They are somewhat of a degradation. If I had been given you as a wife when I was thirty I would never have let the public hear a syllable from me.’

mark rutherford 01

The next post on 17 September will be A Poem by Charles Causley.

My next Reader’s Diary will be posted on 24 September.

Leave a comment

Filed under Literature

British values and English literature

Recent attempts by the British government to remind British citizens of the importance of British values, to encourage parents to instil them in their children and to require state-funded schools to teach them might not be unconnected with current concerns over immigration, but could also be explained by the old saying that you only miss something when it’s gone.

As nobody seems to be able to say exactly what these British values are, except by talking vaguely about the kind of things that are enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, from which the government at the same time is threatening to withdraw, perhaps we should turn to literature for an answer. What a nation reads, what it has read in the past and goes on reading, the books that it considers to be its classics, must surely be a better guide to what its values are than the opinion of the government of the day.

The implied contradiction in looking for British values in English literature is inescapable. The homogeneity or otherwise of a nation is one of the factors that affect how it sees itself and wants to be seen by others. The great classic of Italian literature, Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi, has that status because it looks back to a time of instability and lawlessness from which Italians had been saved by unification. But it is no work of propaganda. As Victor Hugo did in France, so Manzoni in Italy showed his compatriots the best and the worst of themselves. The combination of romanticism and realism made nineteenth century literature the perfect vehicle for expressing an idealistic view of the nation’s future and an honest view of its imperfect present.

The same was true in England of Dickens, who wrote at a time when the ruling class, fearing revolution, could not make up its mind between reform and repression as the best way of holding the country together, that country being nominally Britain but in practice England. (It has always been necessary for the Irish, Welsh and Scottish to make themselves more English in order to be considered British. Take Dylan Thomas, whose poetry was imbued with the sound of a Welsh male voice choir but who read it in the voice of an English actor.) Dickens both shaped and reflected the way the English thought about themselves. He told them to put their faith, not in governments, but in individualism and protestant ethics. His villains were politicians and money-lenders. His heroes were morally upright men, his heroines self-sacrificing women. The British Empire was useful, both as a plot device and in real life, as a way for people, of their own volition or at Her Majesty’s pleasure, to make a fresh start somewhere else.

For Dickens and for the times he lived in, the question of homogeneity was not primarily about conflict between the different countries of the British Isles, let alone their colonies, but between the classes in all of them. That was why Britain continued to be preoccupied with the French Revolution. The ruling class was alarmed, the working class was inspired. Writers had their hopes raised by the revolution and dashed by Napoleon. The fear or hope of revolution was never far from the minds of poets, novelists and essayists (dramatists were held in check by the censor) throughout the nineteenth century.

The British ruling class has always been afraid of something, whether invasion from without or subversion from within. This has given rise over the centuries to the British habit of looking inward and seeing themselves as somehow different. Different and better, because Britain never went to the extremes of violence that other countries did (having learned its lesson in the Civil War) and because, after 1066, it had never failed to defend itself from invasion by a foreign power. The British government learned over time to judge the extent to which, by compromise and a show of fairness, it could achieve its objectives, which were to avoid trouble and by doing so to maintain the status quo. It learned above all that money talks. Better to buy off your opponents than risk a revolution by firing on them in the streets. This is the story of the nineteenth century Radicals, as told in the novels of George Eliot and her contemporaries, running into the buffers with The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and Love on the Dole and their implicit admission of defeat.

Writers by and large reflect rather than shape. The national preference for compromise rather than confrontation, for reasonableness rather than reason, has become in the last hundred years the defining characteristic of the national literature. Romantic idealism has had its day. ‘No, not yet,’ said E.M.Forster. ‘No, not there.’ D.H.Lawrence, spitting and swearing in the wings, was ignored by the well-bred actors on stage, until he went too far with an exhibition of tasteless nudes that the establishment felt obliged to put under lock and key. It was then, in the middle years of the twentieth century, that the establishment forgot, in its irritation with working class upstarts, that the worst thing to do was to confront them. It was, no doubt, an old hand in the Home Office who took the Minister on one side and advised him to remove from the Lord Chancellor his powers of censorship, thereby at a stroke depriving the playwrights of their principal grievance. From then on, they were rebels without a cause.

Matthew Arnold saw it coming when, hearing ‘its long withdrawing roar’, he recognised that the age of faith was over and the age of reason – or in Britain’s case, reasonableness – had begun. As a word to stir the nation, it can’t compare to the three words written above the door of every municipal building in France, but as a way of disarming the opposition and maintaining the status quo reasonableness has proved effective. The values of Arnold and others like him, who clung to what even they recognised as an outmoded idealism, were identical to those of the French revolutionaries in everything except revolution. In News From Nowhere and A Dream of John Ball, William Morris’s socialist vision takes the form of a dream, less a manifesto than a wistful sigh. Utopia in twentieth century English literature was replaced by dystopia. By painting a picture of politics at its worst, British writers drove the last nails into the coffin of romantic idealism. Shakespeare never used words lightly and when, in The Tempest, he described the ‘new world’ as ‘brave’ he surely had in mind the one quality that distinguishes idealists from politicians. Look what happened to the original utopian, Sir Thomas More, when he stood up to Henry VIII. Winston Smith is his counterpart in an age when the words ‘idealist’ and ‘hopeless’ are indissolubly linked and nobody writes utopian novels anymore.

Fairness, moderation, reasonableness. Not words to stir the heart, but definitely British.

william morris 01

The next post will be my Reader’s Diary for 10 September.

My subject on 17 September will be a poem by Charles Causley.

Leave a comment

Filed under Literature

A Reader’s Diary, 27 August 2014

A footnote in one book led me to buy another, an obscure seventeenth century publication known as The Overburian Characters. Most of us know Elizabethan and Jacobean literature for its poetry and plays, not for its prose. Why that should be is hard to say, as so many of the poets and playwrights wrote stories, sermons, essays and, in this case, ‘characters’ too and were as well known for them in their day as they are for their other works in ours.

Sir Thomas Overbury was a friend of Ben Jonson’s, one of ‘the tribe of Ben’ as they were known, and turned to him and other writers for contributions to a collection of short prose pieces to eke out a volume designed mainly to showcase a poem of his own called A Wife. The book came out in 1614, by which time Overbury himself was dead, as the text of the title page makes clear: ‘A WIFE now The Widdow of Sir Thomas Overburye, being a most exquisite and singular poem of the choice of a wife, whereunto are added many witty Characters and conceited Newes, written by himself and other learned gentlemen his friends.’

A ‘character’ like the epigrams and satires that were popular at the time, was based on a classical model, but soon acquired its own English form, described by one of the contributors in a very short piece entitled What a character is. The anonymous author, none of the contributions except the poem being ascribed to a particular contributor, passes quickly from its Greek and Egyptian origins to what it had become in England: ‘To square out a Character by our English level, it is a picture (real or personal) quaintly drawn in various colours, all of them heightened by one shadowing. It is a quick and soft touch of many strings, all shutting up in one musical close. It is wit’s descant on any plain song.’ If there were nothing else in the book worth reading, that lovely example of seventeenth century English prose would be enough on its own.

But there is much else worth reading, both for its own sake and for the tantalising pleasure of knowing that what you are reading might have been written by Jonson or Dekker or Webster. The true character of a dunce, for example, begins its descant, as most of them do, with a witty exposition of its subject: ‘He hath a soul drowned in a lump of flesh, or is a piece of earth that Prometheus put not half his proportion of fire into.’ Several variations on the theme follow, making clear that the dunce in question is not just any old dunce but another writer: ‘One of the most unprofitable of God’s creatures being as he is, a thing put clean besides his right use, made fit for the cart and the flail, and by mischance intangled amongst books and papers.’ Little by little, the description becomes more personal, so that you imagine it cannot have been hard for a reader of the day to guess who might be meant: ‘You shall note him oft (besides his dull eye, and lowting head, and a certain clammy benumbed pace) by a fair displayed beard, a night cap and a gown, whose very wrinkles proclaim him the true genius of formality.’ Sentence by sentence, the writer’s scorn for whichever of his colleagues he has in mind turns increasingly to disgust: ‘As unwelcome to any true conceit, as sluttish morsels or willowish potions to a nice stomach, which whiles he empties himself of, it sticks in his teeth, nor can he be delivered without sweat and sighs and hems and coughs, enough to shake his grandam’s teeth out of her head.’ Is that something Jonson might have written? Is it more like Webster? We shall never know, nor will we know the identity of the dunce. But what a treasure this is of pictures, real or personal, quaintly drawn in various colours, each shutting up in a musical close, like this: ‘In a word, rip him quite asunder and examine every shred of him, you shall find him to be just nothing, but the subject of nothing: the object of contempt; yet such as he is you must take him, for there is no hope he should ever become better.’

The book for the July meeting of my book club was Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The overblown praise quoted on the cover (‘Dazzling’, ‘A box of delights’, ‘Triumphant’) filled me with foreboding, which was to begin with only partially realised. The first three hundred pages, in which incidents are replayed in various ‘what if’ scenarios, were intriguing. For the next three hundred, the increasingly predictable ‘what ifs’ were replaced by a more and more frustrating ‘so what?’ What exactly are you trying to say, I wanted to ask, and have still not found a satisfactory answer. What do the ‘what ifs’ tell me about the events, large and small, general and specific, social and personal, of the twentieth century? Or any other century? And anyway, why write about the kind of well-to-do family whose encounters with the lower orders begin and end for some of them with their servants and for others turn out to be mistakes, when this territory has been explored so many times before, starting brilliantly with E.M.Forster and continuing in a downward spiral ever since?

The answer, as any publisher will tell you, is, ‘Downton Abbey, stupid!’

sir thomas overbury 01  kate atkinson 01

Leave a comment

Filed under Literature

An alchemist of the modern age

The distinctive qualities on which Montaigne’s reputation as an essayist is founded are his conversational voice, his discursive style, his use of both classical reference and personal anecdote to support his arguments and, without which none of these would be of lasting value, his wisdom. The qualities of his close contemporary Sir Francis Bacon (born some thirty years later) are quite different, except for the last, which makes it all the more to be regretted, especially by the English, that his reputation has been overshadowed by the Frenchman’s.

The principal characteristics of Bacon’s essays are their brevity, their wit, their logical form, their incisive intelligence and their wisdom. Whereas, when we read Montaigne, we feel ourselves in the company of an intelligent, well-read man, whose every digression is as full of interest as his principal argument, and what we enjoy in each essay has at least as much to do with the pleasure we take in his company as with the nature of his argument, with Bacon it is precisely the opposite.

Bacon’s essays, the longest of which covers less than six pages, the shortest barely one, are anything but leisurely. His short essays are like extended epigrams, his long ones like abbreviated lectures. ‘I do now publish my essays,’ he wrote in his dedication to the Duke of Buckingham, ‘which, of all my other works, have been most current, for that as it seems they come home to men’s business and bosoms.’ Montaigne, on the other hand, wrote in his that ‘I have dedicated this book to the private benefit of my friends and kinsmen so that, having lost me (as they must do soon) they can find here again some traits of my character and of my humours.’

If the Frenchman’s model was the confessional (‘I myself am the subject of my book’), the Englishman’s was the sermon. In all respects but their brevity, Bacon’s essays bear a striking resemblance to the sermons of his age. He begins with a text and goes on, like John Donne in his sermons, to unpick the argument.

Of Revenge: ‘Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out.’

Of Marriage and Single Life: ‘He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune, for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.’

Of Love: ‘The stage is more beholding to love than the life of man. For, as to the stage, love is ever matter of comedies, and now and then of tragedies, but in life it doth much mischief, sometimes like a siren, sometimes like a fury.’

In his essay Of Friendship, he takes as his text an unattributed quotation, ‘Whatsoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god’, with which he proceeds to take issue. Yes, there is something of the savage beast in a dislike of society, but there is nothing divine in preferring solitude to the company of other men, except in those rare individuals who live as hermits in order to be closer to God. In any case, he says, what we mean by solitude is often misunderstood. ‘A crowd is not company, and faces are but a gallery of pictures, and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love.’ The only true solitude is not to be alone but to be without friends. ‘Whosoever is unfit for friendship, he taketh it of the beast and not from humanity.’

In this, one of his longer essays, he goes on to identify three ‘fruits’ of friendship. The first is ‘the ease and discharge of the fullness and swellings of the heart’. Many diseases, he says, are caused by ‘stoppages and suffocations’ for which there are various cures, ‘but no receipt openeth the heart but a true friend, to whom you may impart griefs, joys, fears hopes, suspicions, counsels, and whatsoever lieth upon the heart to oppress it, in a kind of civil shrift or confession’. (From which form of words, perhaps, is derived today’s ‘civil marriage’.)

He devotes a page or so to illustrating how important this is by the difficulty that kings have in achieving it. Prevented by their position from mixing freely with their subjects, but needing friends as much as anyone, if not more, ‘they raise some persons to be, as it were, companions and almost equals to themselves’. This leads him inevitably to instances of betrayal, such as that of Caesar by Brutus, and to the fear of it that prevents great men from putting their trust in anyone. ‘Those that want friends to open themselves unto,’ he says, ‘are cannibals of their own hearts.’ This leads him to observe that having a friend to confide in has two contrary effects. ‘For there is no man that imparteth his joys to his friend, but he joyeth the more, and no man that imparteth his griefs to his friend, but he grieveth the less.’

‘The second fruit of friendship,’ he says, ‘is healthful and sovereign for the understanding, as the first is for the affections.’ He identifies two means by which this occurs. The first requires the friend to do nothing but listen, because ‘whosoever hath his mind fraught with many thoughts, his wits and understanding do clarify and break up in the communicating and discoursing with another’. The second requires the friend to offer advice and to do so without fear or favour. ‘For there is no such flatterer as is a man’s self, and there is no such remedy against flattery of a man’s self as the liberty of a friend.’

The last fruit of friendship, he says, ‘is like the pomegranate, full of many kernels’. In other words, your friends can do things for you that you cannot do yourself. ‘A man hath a body, and that body is confined to a place; but where friendship is, all offices of life are as it were granted to him.’ In a phrase rarely used by Montaigne, he reaches his conclusion: ‘To enumerate these things were endless; I have given the rule, where a man cannot fitly play his own part; if he have not a friend, he may quit the stage.’

Bacon’s fifty-nine short essays deal with subjects as varied as truth, death, atheism, travel, ambition, usury, gardens, anger and fame. As literary artefacts they combine elements of both the poems and the sermons of John Donne in that fusion of words and ideas that we now call metaphysical, but which might then have been called a kind of literary alchemy. Bacon was a scientist after all, as well as a writer.

He might not have written the plays of William Shakespeare, but he did turn out to have been a speech writer for Franklin D.Roosevelt. ‘The only thing you have to fear is fear itself’ was a line memorably delivered by the American president during the Great Depression, but written more than three hundred years earlier by the English essayist, Sir Francis Bacon, Viscount St Albans, alchemist of the modern age.

sir francis bacon 01

The next post will be my Reader’s Diary for 27 August.

My next essay on 3 September will be on British values and English literature.

Leave a comment

Filed under Literature

A Reader’s Diary, 13 August 2014

Bell from a Distant Temple, a novel by my favourite neglected author, Ronald Fraser, is set in eighth century China. The Flying Draper (about a draper who masters the art of levitation and takes it to extreme lengths) and Rose Anstey (about a beautiful woman who appears out of nowhere, lacking a past, and rather like Goldilocks makes herself at home with three older men) are set mainly in twentieth century London. Surprising Results (about British ex-pats and a beautiful woman of loose morals) is set in the south of France.

Fraser’s discontent with materialism, not uncommon at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, finds expression in different ways in each of the four novels and gives them their distinctive quality. Sometimes, as in The Flying Draper, the power of mind over matter is what drives the plot, sometimes it is simply an undercurrent. Nothing that is physically impossible happens in Rose Anstey or Surprising Results (except perhaps the almost miraculous slimming of the overweight French woman that turns her into a beautiful nymph-like creature) but both are nonetheless imbued with a sense of other-worldliness, the mystery that surrounds Rose in the former, the idyllic location in the latter. At any moment, you expect a metamorphosis to occur.

Tu Ku, the central character in Bell from a Distant Temple, is based on Tu Fu, a poet of the T’ang dynasty, which lasted from 618 to 906 AD. A few of the other characters are made up, but most are people who actually existed. One of the fictitious characters is the narrator, Tu Ku’s servant, nicknamed ‘The Mirror’ or ‘Master Self-effacement’ by Tu Ku. Another is The Priest of Luan, with whom the servant forms a close bond. In his introduction, Fraser writes that the Priest is a Taoist, ‘not one of those whom widening superstition credited with little but wonder-working powers and the secret of concocting an elixir, but a true follower of the Master Lao Tzu and one who had become an initiate in the mysteries that are surely common to all systems of esoteric knowledge, including esoteric Christianity’.

Fraser wrote more than twenty novels of which The Flying Draper in 1924 was the first and Bell from a Distant Temple in 1954 among the last. Albert Codling, the levitating Londoner, was still alive and well thirty years later in eighth century China, after a variety of incarnations in other times and other places, still firm in his belief that, as Hamlet puts it, ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’.

Herbert Read, an almost exact contemporary of Fraser and, like him though for different reasons, services to literature as opposed to diplomatic service, given a knighthood, is remembered mainly for his books about art, but he was also a poet and the author of one novel, The Green Child. It was published by Heinemann in 1935, Penguin published it in 1969 but have since discontinued it. On the back cover of my Penguin edition it is described as ‘a brilliantly sustained piece of political and philosophical fantasy’.

The novel is in three parts, of which the first and third are written in the third person and the second in the first. Olivero, an Englishman who for the last thirty years has been head of state in a South American republic which he helped to found, fakes his own assassination so that he can return to England and solve a mystery which began in his childhood when a mysterious green child turned up in the village, was adopted by a widow called Mrs Hardie and later married to a man called Kneeshaw. When he returns, he finds that a stream he remembers playing in when he was a boy is now flowing in the other direction. He meets the Green Child again and with her follows it to its source.

‘She walked swiftly through the water on to the silvery sand. She was sinking, and as she sank she turned towards Olivero. Her face was transfigured, radiant as an angel’s. She stretched out an arm towards Olivero. With a cry of happiness, as if a secret joy had been revealed to him, he raced forward and hand in hand they sank below the surface of the pool.’

In Part 2, Olivero tells his own story, from the day he left the village to the day, thirty years later, when he returned to it. The philosophical fantasy of Part 1, to which the author returns in Part 3, is now replaced by political fantasy, as Olivero describes in some detail the founding of the republic, the constitution he writes for it and his experience as head of state. It is, in effect, a Platonic monologue on the subject of the ideal state and is longer than the other two parts put together.

Part 3 takes up the story where Part 1 left off.

‘The water had no sooner closed over them than it seemed to be sucked away from their bodies, to curve upwards at their feet, to arch over their heads, until it formed a perfect spheroid. They were standing within an immense bubble, against which the water pressed in vain, the sandy particles quivering rapidly against its glassy inner wall.’

When the bubble bursts, they find themselves ‘in a large grotto, filled with an aqueous light, blue in the darker reaches, pale green towards the apparent outlet’.

Olivero is accepted into the world of the Green Child and after a period of adjustment, when ‘fully disintoxicated of all his earthly sentiments’ begins his journey through the stages of life, working first as a food-gatherer, then as a spinner and weaver, then as a crystal polisher. Having achieved perfection in that art, he joins one of the groups of philosophers who spend their days walking, talking and thinking. Finally, he passes from being the leader of his group to the final stage of solitary contemplation, followed by a peaceful death.

‘The beating of his heart was like the jumping of a flame in an empty lamp. Summoning his last vital effort, he stifled for all time that anxious agitation.’

The voice is different, as are the narrative technique and the symbolism which runs through it, but one thing that Sir Herbert had in common with Sir Ronald was a belief that art should be more than a realistic representation of everyday life. It was a strand in the literature of the first few decades of the twentieth century that has been lost and forgotten, novels that were experimental, not in language and form, like Joyce or Woolf, but in their subject matter and its treatment. David Garnett and T.F.Powys were two more for whom real life was never real enough. All these writers took liberties with reality in the way that artists were doing at the same time. The stories of T.F.Powys have more in common with the paintings of Stanley Spencer than with the work of his literary contemporaries. All these writers, well read and well thought of in their day, languish now in a literary backwater, known at best for just one or two books, Garnett for Lady Into Fox, Powys for Mr Weston’s Good Wine. The Green Child has recently been published in a new edition by Capuchin Classics. They should turn their attention now to Sir Ronald Fraser.

ronald fraser 01

My next piece, on 20 August, will be about the Essays of Sir Francis Bacon.

My next Reader’s Diary will appear on 27 August.

Leave a comment

Filed under Literature

Beyond melancholy

In Act V of The White Devil by John Webster, Flamineo is visited by the ghost of the recently murdered Duke of Bracciano. Unlike Macbeth, he is not in the least disturbed by the apparition but tries to engage it in conversation. Instead of answering his questions, the ghost holds up a skull in one hand and throws earth on him with the other. Flamineo is unimpressed. ‘This is beyond melancholy,’ he says when the ghost withdraws.

It is a throw-away line by one of Webster’s archetypal villains, for whom the word amoral, since it did not then exist, had to be invented. Of all the devils in The White Devil, Flamineo is the most cynical and self-aware. When, in Act V, he tells Vittoria, his sister, that he is about to murder her, he dismisses her pleas for mercy and justifies the act on the grounds that he made a promise to Bracciano and intends to keep it, first by killing her, then by killing himself.

‘Pray thee, good woman, do not trouble me
With this vain worldly business. Say your prayers.
I made a vow to my deceasèd lord,
Neither yourself, nor I should outlive him
The numbering of four hours.’

In any case, he says, if a great lord isn’t safe in his own court, what hope is there for them? To which she replies, ‘This is your melancholy and despair.’

Only once in any of Shakespeare’s plays do we see something ugly showing through the façade of melancholy, when, in Twelfth Night, Orsino’s jealousy leads him to threaten Caesario with violence.
‘Come, boy, with me; my thoughts are ripe in mischief:
I’ll sacrifice the lamb that I do love,
To spite a raven’s heart within a dove.’

The line between comedy and tragedy is, as everyone knows, finely drawn. In Shakespeare’s comedies we catch an occasional glimpse of tragedy. In Webster’s tragedies the opposite happens. Flamineo in The White Devil and Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi take us close enough to the line for us to see beyond it. It is not that Webster gives the devil all the best tunes, just that in these two he shows us, not the devil, but flawed humanity, shows us in fact ourselves.

There is something of Hamlet in Flamineo, as if the rottenness in the state of Denmark has gone so far that everyone is infected, himself included. He has no illusions and makes no apology. His self-awareness is theatrical, he can never resist the temptation of going for the laugh, like Sir Thomas More, who thanked the hangman for helping him up to the scaffold and told him he would shift for himself going down. His death speech, for which he waits until everyone else is dead so that he has the audience’s full attention, is pure theatre. The maid dies, his sister dies, then he sits up, as he did from his simulated death a few minutes before, and re-introduces himself with the line:

‘I recover like a spent taper, for a flash,
And instantly go out.’

The final couplet of his speech demands applause.

‘Let no harsh flattering bells resound my knell
Strike, thunder, and strike loud to my farewell.’

Having already established his humanity and earned, if grudgingly, our sympathy, he is entitled to make the most of his ending. Tied to a pillar in the palace but still refusing to show any remorse, he laughs at his captors and gets the better of them in the exchange that follows.

‘Dost laugh?’
‘Wouldst have me die, as I was born, in whining?’
‘Recommend yourself to heaven.’
‘No, I will carry mine own commendations thither.’

Then, when asked what he is thinking, he reverts to the strain of melancholy, at which the audience cannot fail to be moved.

‘Nothing; of nothing. Leave thy idle questions,
I am i’th’ way to study a long silence,
To prate were idle; I remember nothing.
There’s nothing of so infinite vexation
As man’s own thoughts.’

There are many things in The White Devil, lines, incidents, theatrical effects, that are reminiscent of Shakespeare, which is hardly surprising since Webster’s career was beginning just as Shakespeare’s was ending. The White Devil and The Tempest both had their first performance in 1612. But more interestingly, he sometimes seems to prefigure later developments, often much later. What he calls tragedies are to us more like black comedies or even theatre of the absurd. The constant interplay of prose and verse gives them a quality quite different from Shakespeare’s, suggesting that Webster was aiming at a new kind of drama, challenging the conventional Elizabethan boundaries. Shakespeare started it, of course, but Webster took it further, effectively rubbing out the line between comedy and tragedy altogether.

Shakespeare’s plays had a political dimension that Webster’s lack. The dukes and cardinals that Webster presents are not there to teach us lessons about good government, but are metaphorical representations of the elemental forces which drive humanity. Good and evil are evenly balanced in Shakespeare’s world, though it sometimes takes a Prospero to keep them so. No such balance exists in Webster’s world. Webster owes more to Marlowe than he does to Shakespeare. Marlowe was at home with anarchy in a way that Shakespeare never was. There is no redemption for Faust, only eternal torment, such as we see in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Instead of a Shakespearean (and Elgarian) hope for the future at the end of the last act, all Marlowe gives us is the flames of hell.

It is the same with Webster who, at the end of The White Devil, has one of his villains taking pride in his villainy –

‘I do glory yet
That I can call this act my own. For my part,
The rack, the gallows, and the torturing wheel
Shall be but sound sleeps to me. Here’s my rest:
I limned this night-piece, and it was my best.’

– and the son of one of the other villains delivering a final couplet which, in the light of everything we have seen, is not terribly convincing –

‘Let guilty men remember their black deeds
Do lean on crutches, made of slender reeds.’

The literary history of melancholy, as opposed to the medical history, drifts from one side to the other of the tragi-comic demarcation line, from self-pity to self-knowledge, from amused detachment to outright cynicism, from Orsino and Jacques to Hamlet and Iago, from Stephen Dedalus to Vladimir and Estragon. The melancholy character is the one who stands outside the action, disowning his own part in it, like Hamlet. A convenient alter ego for the omnisicient and ambivalent narrator, leading the reader by the elbow as Virgil leads Dante.

melancholy 01

My next post will be my Reader’s Diary for 13 August.

Leave a comment

Filed under Literature