A Reader’s Diary, 17 December 2014

The Boat, one of L.P.Hartley’s less well-known novels, is set in war-time England, but has little to do with the war. Indeed, that is the point. The setting is a fictional village called Upton-on-Swirrel. The author leaves it to one of his characters to get things started.

‘This is a quiet little hole,’ said the cook.

The story continues to be told in large part by the characters rather than the narrator, making use of all the means of communication then available, telephone, telegram, letters delivered by the Royal Mail, letters delivered by hand and old-fashioned conversation. The impact of the war on the characters’ lives is limited to the shortages and delays to which it gives rise. The central character, a writer in late middle age called Timothy Casson, is wholly consumed by his passion for rowing and briefly by his passion for a young woman who turns out to be a Communist agent-provocateur. Renting a house in the village when the war forces his return from Venice, where he has lived for several years, he finds himself in conflict with the local gentry, who regard the Swirrel as a fishing river, not a boating river. This conflict and the various passions that swirl around it are what the book is about.

L.P.Hartley tells the story by letting it tell itself. His prose is exquisite, his impartiality so absolute that the reader’s sympathies (this reader’s anyway) are held permanently in abeyance. Timothy Casson himself, Hamlet-like, can never quite make his mind up whose side he is on or who his friends are. When two of those friends die as a result of his actions, he is quite unable to see that he is in any way responsible. When two of his friends suggest that the best thing for him to do is to leave, he does so at once, as if neither passion had ever existed. He gets into the car, his servants see him off and that’s it. The narrator’s last words tell us what we should have known all along.

He was asleep.

It is the author’s quiet verdict, if not on England in wartime, then on that part of it which is represented by Timothy Casson.

Musicians should be as wary of words as actors are advised to be of children and animals. The truth of this was brought home to me by an evening of music and words on the theme of Christmas given by the Birmingham-based choir, Ex Cathedra, at a church in Shrewsbury. Only one of the nine readings had what seems to me to be the one thing that words as part of a musical performance must have: musicality. Words are not usually spoken to a tune, which leaves us with rhythm. Anything from the King James Bible meets that criterion. Anything else needs to be chosen very carefully. There were two bible readings in Christmas By Candlelight, but only one of them, Luke ii 1-8, was the one written in Jacobean English. The other, Corinthians 13, was from a modern version, which meant we had love instead of charity and looked into a dusty mirror instead of seeing through a glass darkly. I can’t remember now exactly how it ended, but it had none of the musical rhythm of ‘And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.’ The other readings, by excellent writers such as Carol Ann Duffy, Jeannette Winterson, U.A.Fanthorpe and Thomas Hardy, could not stand up to the music. They were also, most of them, too long, longer in at least one case, than any of the pieces sung by the choir. It took me a long time to recover from that. Eight short verses from Luke, on the other hand, ending with ‘And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night’, made the transition from words to music, a setting of the next verse, ‘And lo, the angel of the Lord’, by James MacMillan, as easy and delightful as it could possibly be.

Delightful is as good a word as any to describe an American novel which Willa Cather considered to be one of only three which had ‘the possibility of a long, long life’. The other two were The Scarlet Letter and Huckleberry Finn. She was right about those, but not so far about The Country of the Pointed Firs. I am sure I am not alone, at least among English students of English literature, in never having heard of it or its author, Sarah Orne Jewett. Out of print in this country, it is set in a fictional fishing village in the real state of Maine around the turn of the nineteenth century and consists of a series of loosely connected stories about some of its inhabitants. The English counterpart that comes to mind is Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford, though writers such as Mary Webb and Constance Holme are closer to it in the way they have been categorised as ‘provincial’. The American category to which Sarah Jewett belongs is known, I believe, as ‘local color’.

Willa Cather’s introduction to my 1927 Traveller’s Library edition is followed by a quote from an American critic writing in 1904:

I always think of her as of one who, hearing New England accused of being a bleak land without beauty, passes confidently over the snow, and by the grey rock, and past the dark fir tree, to a southern bank, and there, brushing away the decayed leaves, triumphantly shows to the fault-finder a spray of the trailing arbutus. And I should like, for my own part, to add this: that the fragrant, retiring, exquisite flower, which I think she would say is the symbol of New England virtue, is the symbol also of her own modest and delightful art.

The literary counterpart perhaps to New England quilting. Folk art always means more to folk than to critics who, even when they praise it, do so in terms that put it quietly but firmly in its place.

l p hartley 02 ex cathedra 01 sarah orne jewett 02

Instead of the usual literary essay, my next post will be a ghost story for Christmas, Rough Sleepers, with illustrations by Maria Hayes.

Back to normal after that with my Reader’s Diary for 31 December.

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Better sung

Oscar Wilde’s one act play, Salomé, is better known as an opera by Richard Strauss. The same is true of Pelléas et Mélisande, the play by Maurice Maeterlinck that became an opera by Claude Debussy. Why should two plays which have inspired not only Strauss and Debussy but many other composers too be so rarely performed? Why are they not celebrated as masterpieces in their own right?

Wilde wrote his play in French during a stay in Paris in 1891. “I have one instrument that I know I can command,” he wrote later, “and that is the English language. There was another instrument to which I had listened all my life, and I wanted once to touch this new instrument to see whether I could make any beautiful thing out of it.” He made the mistake of asking Lord Alfred Douglas to translate it into English instead of translating it himself. Douglas is still credited as the translator, even though he made such a poor job of it that Wilde himself had to improve it before he could allow it to be published. He should have known that the young man wasn’t up to it, but love clouded his judgement.

In the play, Herod can’t take his eyes off his wife’s daughter and later regrets the promise he makes to persuade her to dance for him. It is a play about infatuation and uncannily prefigures everything that was to follow in Wilde’s life. By the time it had its first performance, in the city where it had been written five years previously, Wilde was in prison. Performances in England had been banned by the Lord Chamberlain. Nothing to do with the dance of the seven veils, just that it was illegal to depict biblical characters on the stage. There was no public performance in England until 1931. Wilde, had he lived to see it, would have been seventy-seven. Few have been given since.

Salomé can be seen either as a stylistic exercise in the manner of Maurice Maeterlinck, who was then very popular in France, or as the real Oscar Wilde. “A great deal of the curious effect that Maeterlinck produces,” he went on to say in the piece quoted above, “comes from the fact that he, a Flamand by grace, writes in an alien language. The same thing is true of Rossetti, who, though he wrote in English, was essentially Latin in temperament.” The distinction between a writer and his voice has a peculiar relevance to Wilde, who saw art, not as a representation of life, but as an alternative to it.

Nothing that Wilde ever said or wrote should be taken at face value. Perhaps when he wrote about an instrument to which he had listened all his life and wanted to touch once to see if he could make something beautiful of it, we should understand him to be referring not only to the French language but more widely to himself, his life and his art. What he says about himself, Maeterlinck and Rossetti is, to say the least, tenuous with regard to their native languages, but undoubtedly true with regard to their sense of alienation from the societies in which they lived.

He said it in another way when he wrote, in The Ballad of Reading Gaol, that ‘each man kills the thing he loves’. It explains perhaps why he and many other writers of that era wrote stories for children. The world of childhood, for Wilde, Barrie, Milne, Carroll and others, was a world free of the constraints that the grown-up world imposed on them. That is not to say that what they wrote for children can be decoded to reveal hidden messages about themselves and their psychology, just that writing for children took them into a world of pure imagination, unhindered by conventional views of reality. Whatever it is to be ‘a Flamand by grace’, to be ‘essentially Latin in temperament’ is to be a law unto yourself, to be ruled only by your passions and not to give a damn. To kill the thing you love is a crime of passion, like the killing of Jokanaan in Salomé.

There is too much of Maeterlinck in Salomé for there to be much doubt that Wilde had seen at least one of his plays while he was in Paris and read others. The cumulative effect of the repetition of words, phrases and whole sentences is a feature of all the plays by Maeterlinck that Wilde might then have seen and of his own Salomé, in which the phrases most often repeated, with meanings and implications that change subtly from person to person, refer to the beauty of Salomé and/or the moon, looking at Salomé and/or the moon and the feeling that something terrible is about to happen.

The first lines of the play are spoken by two young men on a balcony in Herod’s palace, one talking about the moon, the other about Salomé.

“How beautiful is the Princess Salomé tonight!”

“Look at the moon! How strange the moon seems! She is like a woman rising from a tomb. She is like a dead woman. You would fancy she was looking for dead things.”

“She has a strange look. She is like a little princess who wears a yellow veil, and whose feet are of silver. She is like a princess who has little white doves for feet. You would fancy she was dancing.”

“She is like a woman who is dead. She moves very slowly.”

This works better in French, which has the same pronoun, ‘elle’, for both the moon and the princess. In English, it would be more natural to refer to the moon as ‘it’. The identification of Salomé with the moon is achieved effortlessly in French, but depends on phrasing that sounds artificial in English. The same thing happens when ‘elle est’ is translated as ‘she is’ instead of, as would be more natural, ‘she’s’. Wilde’s French is very plain, almost conversational in tone, but in English it becomes more formal. There is more variety of tone and register in the original than in the translation, which has a self-conscious air of being deliberately poetic even in the most mundane exchanges. Two soldiers watch Herod from the balcony. Their exchange in French translates literally as:

“He’s looking at someone.”

“Who’s he looking at?”

“I don’t know.”

In Lord Alfred Douglas’s translation, this becomes:

“He is looking at someone.”

“At whom is he looking?”

“I cannot tell.”

English readers suffer in the same way from Maeterlinck’s first translators, who for most of the plays are still all we have. The unfortunate consequence is that neither Salomé nor Pelléas et Mélisande are appreciated or understood as they should be, Oscar Wilde is known only for his comedies, Maurice Maeterlinck is hardly known at all and two of their best plays, in the absence of new translations, are better sung.

salome strauss 01  pelleas at melisande 01

The next post will be my Reader’s Diary for 17th December.

On Christmas Eve my usual essay will be replaced by a ghost story, Rough Sleepers, with illustrations by Maria Hayes.

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A Reader’s Diary, 3 December 2014

The publication of a Collected Poems is a momentous occasion in the life of any poet. Momentous for the poet’s readers too and more than usually so with the publication of Waiting, the first volume of the Collected Poems of John Martin, only one of which, as a note on the first page explains, has appeared in print before.

The collection, when we have all the volumes, will cover a period of forty years (a lifetime, if it were not yet over) starting with the early poems and progressing, at what speed we do not yet know, until it reaches the present day. Two verses from a poem by Robert Browning stand at the head of the first volume, like a signpost showing us the way, except that each verse points in a different direction, one back (‘years go by and spring / Gladdens and the young earth is beautiful’), the other forward (‘now when all thy proud renown is out, / I am a watcher whose eyes have grown dim’). This Collected Poems, more than most, feels like a retrospective.

Most of the poems are untitled and that too helps to create the impression, deliberate or not, that together they comprise a drawerful of memorabilia, Browning again in the poem of that name (‘Well, I forget the rest’) or Eliot’s ‘evening with the photograph album’. The influence of these poets and others is ever present, reminding us that the poems were written when the poet was a young man, still finding his voice and liable, consciously or otherwise, to imitate others. Eliot is there on the first page:

I have seen those I know
and those I hardly know
turn to a corner of the room
and with their heads in shadow
bend to cry.

Voices echo and re-echo on almost every page, Catullus on page 3, Auden on page 4, Shakespeare on page 6, Rupert Brooke on page 7. Page after page, echo by echo, until at last the truth dawns that the poet is neither plagiarist nor parodist, but a writer who has learned to write by reading. The ‘old bones’ in Klein Upon Old Bones are the sonnets, villanelles, epigrams, satires and heroic couplets that make up a sizeable proportion of John Martin’s poetic output in this first volume. Klein calls them ‘fallen gravestones’.

Gawp at unstable words and catch the fracture.
Then exploit it, birds sing. Call yourself a poet.

He does and calls himself too

            a self being loosened out of self,
tick-tock, tick-tock,
a metronomic ventricle that drives the cosmic clock.

To write, says Klein, is ‘to put in a nutshell the feeling in your bones’ and ‘to catch the echo with your taking pains.’

The next time we meet Klein is in Klein At The Piano. ‘Distress,’ he states at the outset, ‘is my technique’.

Hours I walk precise tight-ropes
I tread for their tone
lest from modulated emotion I fall
to a dissonance of lovers

The poem ends with a self-mocking pun.

I farm granite with lichen,
like a poet I like to liken.

Every effect in these poems is carefully calculated, so carefully that, if it seems to miss its target, you suspect a trap. A complex poem about two people striving endlessly to understand themselves and each other –

Each compelled always to return
to pace an endless passageway beside the river
in re-enactment of an act itself a promise only
of its re-enactment

– resolves the dilemma with an uncompromising quatrain:

Mirror, mirror on the wall,
who am I, if you are all,
reflection from the real to tell –
I’ll smash your face and break the spell.

A poet who has remained unpublished for so long, not because his poems have been rejected by editors and publishers, but because he has never sought publication, is likely to be one for whom poetry is a private language, each poem a citadel. One of the poems won a prize, others would have found their place in the small presses of the day if the poet had been impelled to submit them. He wrote instead for himself, as all poets do when they are young and as some continue to do throughout their unpublished lives. He is the modern equivalent of the Victorian fossil hunter, driven by a personal and private obsession, an obscure need to know and to understand. Charles Darwin was slow to publish.

If self-knowledge (or its counterpart, self-loathing) is the subject of these private poems (so private they did not want to be read), poetry itself is what drives them. For the fossils on which Darwin based his theory, read the echoes that inform these poems. The poet’s own voice is beginning to be shaped. What it will turn out to be we do not yet know, but Waiting leaves us in no doubt that it will be good, perhaps very good, certainly worth waiting for.

The last poem in the book, the title poem, hints at a change. If there is an echo here it is of Philip Larkin, the subject of the poem being an incident on a station platform (Larkin territory since Whitsun Weddings). A stranger enters the waiting room, which the poet shares with a married couple and their fractious children. The stranger, ‘an ordinary bloke / who looks uncomfortably spick and span / in clothes one wears to dine in or be wived’, has a calming effect on them all. ‘We have been warmed / by kindness that reproves the common meanness / of imagination, often so deformed / by fear.’ It turns out that the stranger is dressed, not for a dinner or a wedding, but for his mother’s funeral.

                                    My mother’s dead,
I’m going to bury her, clear up the mess,
this was the first train I could get, he said…

The poem ends, not with rhyming couplets, but with a single line, albeit one that bears, as it says itself, some weight:

we share, all bare, the weight all bear, and wait.

The puns, the internal rhymes, the repetition, contrive to slow the line down and turn what might have been too easy a conclusion into one that forces further thought.

Waiting is not what the other poems seem to be about. The collective title gives them a meaning which they did not have when they were written, but which is given to them retrospectively. One wonders what title they might have been given if they had been published, as poems in a Collected Poems should have been, when they were first written. Echoes perhaps, the title taken from another poem with echoes of its own.

This is that legendary city by the river,
a forsaken roadstead’s ruined palaces
amongst the dereliction of its watercourses,
with spellbound passageways between the vaults
and flooded chambers of abandoned wharves…

Serial publication of poems written over four decades is something no other poet to my knowledge has attempted. No other poet perhaps has had the patience or the will to wait until his lifetime’s work was complete (or nearly so) before allowing it to be read. Each volume will bring us closer to a present about which, most unusually for readers of a poet’s Collected Poems, we know nothing. What is John Martin writing now? New Poems may be some way off. Meanwhile, the John Martin Retrospective is novelty enough.

Waiting by John Martin (ISBN 978-0-9930899-0-2) is available in bookshops or by mail order here.

On 10 December I will be writing about two plays that are better known as operas, Pelléas et Mélisande and Salomé.

My next Reader’s Diary will be published on 17 December.

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Late poems

I remember when High Windows was published in 1974 the excitement I felt in anticipation of reading Philip Larkin’s first collection of new poems in a decade. I remember also the feeling of disappointment I had in finding in it nothing new, nothing that he had not said already in The Less Deceived in 1955 and Whitsun Weddings in 1964.

But then disappointment is mainly what Philip Larkin wrote about. The word itself made an early appearance on the first page of his first book.

‘But o, photography! as no art is,
Faithful and disappointing! that records
Dull days as dull, and hold-it smiles as frauds’

are the pivotal lines in the middle of Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album, which concludes by regretting ‘a past that no one now can share’.

High Windows begins at the seaside where what he sees

‘Brings sharply back something known long before –
The miniature gaiety of seasides.’

The observation of an annual ritual had been a staple of Larkin’s poetry since, in Whitsun Weddings, after a train journey in the course of which he saw a dozen wedding parties standing on a dozen station platforms, he felt

‘A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.’

Twenty years divides two more poems that are quintessential Larkin, both about the coming of spring.

‘On longer evenings,
Light, chill and yellow,
Bathes the serene
Foreheads of houses.’

The metaphor in Coming could not be bettered but was certainly equalled by that in The Trees.

‘The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.’

All one can say about the poet of High Windows, which turned out to be his last collection, is that he was older. The wisdom had already been achieved and that was there too in its familiar guise of sometimes grudging, sometimes willing acceptance. Two metaphors, one from At Grass, the last poem in the first book, the other from The Explosion, the last poem in the last book, show how close his older self was to his younger one. The retired horses in the former

‘Have slipped their names, and stand at ease,
Or gallop for what must be joy,
And not a fieldglass sees them home,
Or curious stop-watch prophesies:
Only the groom, and the groom’s boy,
With bridles in the evening come.’

In the latter, a miner who, on his way to that day’s shift, had stopped to take some eggs from a bird’s nest, appears to the wife who waits with the other wives after an explosion at the mine.

‘…and for a second
Wives saw men of the explosion
Larger than in life they managed –
Gold as on a coin, or walking
Somehow from the sun towards them,
One showing the eggs unbroken.’

Those who like Larkin for his cynicism might consider that sentimental. It would be more just perhaps to see it as an expression of the need all human beings have for solace in the face of their own mortality, as in The Building which ends with hospital visitors in their ‘struggle to transcend the thought of dying’ coming each evening ‘with wasteful, weak, propitiatory flowers’.

R.S.Thomas published more than twenty volumes at regular intervals throughout his much longer life, each of which surprised his readers. The Welsh priest left God out of his poetry to begin with. In his last collection, No Truce with the Furies, God is everywhere. The parishioners who populated his first books of poetry, Prytherch, Cynddylan, Davies, are just a memory. His struggles with them, with what he thought they might have to teach him, rather than he them, give way in his last book to his own struggles with God.

The poems that made his name as a poet, with the publication of Song at the Year’s Turning, though they took his parish as their subject, were always ambivalent about its true nature. Iago Prytherch is painted in A Peasant as ‘a winner of wars, enduring like a tree under the curious stars’. But in A Priest to His People he asks their forgiveness for his ‘initial hatred’ and concludes by telling them:

‘You will still continue to unwind your days
In a crude tapestry under the jealous heavens
To affront, bewilder, yet compel my gaze.’

In the end though he turns his back on them and his Valediction is anything but kind.

‘Unnatural and inhuman, your wild ways
Are not sanctioned; you are condemned
By man’s potential stature.’

He concludes with words that, if Christianity is about forgiveness, seem hardly Christian.

‘For this I leave you
Alone in your harsh acres, herding pennies
Into a sock to serve you for a pillow
Through the long night that waits upon your span.’

He addresses God in his last book with the same honesty and directness as he addressed Prytherch and the others in his first. Geriatric, the first poem in the book, is a reaction to visiting a geriatric ward.

‘What god is proud
of this garden
of dead flowers, this underwater
grotto of humanity,
where limbs wave in invisible
currents, faces drooping
on dry stalks, voices clawing
in a last desperate effort
to retain hold?’

Developing the image of the neglected garden as a metaphor of age (‘reason overgrown by confusion’) he sets against it (‘comforting myself, as I can’) the possibility

‘that there is another
garden, all dew and fragrance,
and that these are the brambles
about it we are caught in’

but leaves us in no doubt that he knows which is the reality and which the poetic image (‘all dew and fragrance’) for the parson to comfort his congregation with. Except for the three lines that follow and give the poem its ending:

‘a sacrifice prepared
by a torn god to a love fiercer
than we can understand.’

The concept of a torn god is one that a humanist (though not, perhaps, a fundamental humanist such as the author of The God Delusion) can appreciate, if only as a way of describing the human condition. It is explored in other ways in other poems. In S.K. it is a theological problem, the S.K. in question being Søren Kierkegaard, whose questioning of the objective and subjective reality of God and his relationship to Him (or His to him) leads him to conclude that:

‘The difficulty
with prayer is the exchange
of places between I and thou,
with silence as the answer
to an imagined request.’

There are times when the poems remind one of Shakespearean soliloquies, asking questions (‘To be or not to be?’), testing hypotheses (‘Ah, there’s the rub!’), concluding more often than not with an inconclusive shake of the head (‘Thus conscience does make cowards of us all’). Reflections, from which comes the line that gives the book its title, is one such.

‘The furies are at home
in the mirror; it is their address.
Even the deepest water,
if deep enough can drown.’

(Don’t be fooled. Write it down differently and it’s blank verse.) The inconclusive conclusion takes the form of a poetic sleight of hand by which the mirror is changed into a chalice

‘held out to you in
silent communion, where gaspingly
you partake of a shifting
identity never your own.’

The torn god, the shifting identity, enable the humanist reader to share in a religious experience which in the hands of another religious poet would be so remote as to be meaningless. The seventeenth century poets managed it no better and, as he says himself in Ressurections, it was

‘Easier for them, God
only at the beginning
of his recession.’

He describes Herbert and Traherne as ‘walking in a garden not yet polluted’. But with the immediacy for which Herbert especially is renowned (‘I struck the board and cried, No more!’) he asks, ‘What happened? Suddenly he was gone, leaving love guttering in his withdrawal.’ This short poem ends with an image of startling, metaphysical potency – God’s corpse.

‘And scenting
disaster, as flies are attracted
to a carcase, far down
in the subconscious the ghouls
and the demons we thought
we had buried for ever resurrected.’

There are, among the poems of religious questioning, of growing faith, poems of love too, love of his wife and love of others. Yet somehow, read together, they are all of a piece, the same voice in all of them. In one, The Morrow, the first verse is about climbing a hill the night after his wife’s death and asking,

‘Is she up there, the woman
who was the pawn that love
offered in  exchange for beauty?’

The next verse, the last, is about going back to his room and finding her there, ‘speechlessly enquiring: Was all well?’ You don’t need to share his faith to share in the moment or perhaps to recall similar moments in your own life. He concludes by giving his answer to ‘the world’s question as to where at death does the soul go’:

‘There is no need under a pillarless
heaven for it to go anywhere.’

You get the feeling, reading these late poems, that, unlike Philip Larkin, who had only so many poems in him, R.S.Thomas could have gone on forever. He says it himself in Swallows, bidding them farewell for another year, knowing they will be back on time next year.

‘Not like
me whose migrations
are endless, though my perch
be of bone…
a new singer of an old
song, an innovator
too regardless of time
for the time-keeping swallows.’

philip larkin 01   r.s.thomas 01

The next post will be my Reader’s Diary for 3 December.

On 10 December I will be writing about two plays that are better known as operas, Pelléas et Mélisande and Salomé.

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A Reader’s Diary, 19 November 2014

Arts Council England has been criticised lately for spending most of its money in London and giving the rest, like Maundy money, to selected poor people in the English regions. However just the criticism, there is nothing anyone can do about it. Money obeys certain laws, one of which is that it must be shared unequally.

If it were shared according to the principle expounded by John Ruskin in Unto This Last, one of his most radical and controversial essays, exactly the same amount would be given to each publicly funded arts organisation, large or small, wherever in England it happened to be. But then Ruskin was, in the old fashioned sense of the word, a communist. He was one of those Victorian idealists who grew more and more unhappy as they came to see that the world they had been unlucky enough to have been born into was not likely to change, in their lifetime or after it.

The principle on which public funding of the arts in England is based is of course quite different. Perhaps it isn’t a principle, perhaps it’s just a habit, but whatever it is its aim is to keep everyone as far as possible in the manner to which they have become accustomed. The big national arts organisations, like the English aristocracy of olden days, need a lot of money to pay their staff and keep up appearances. Nearly half of what England spends on the arts goes to ten big theatres, opera houses, orchestras, ballet companies and galleries. This is the least they can manage on. The rest is shared, unequally, between nearly seven hundred other organisations. Annual grants start at £40,000 and go up to £25,000,000. The big organisations are safe, too big to fail. Small ones come and go, but never turn into big ones. The arts funding system in England, whatever anyone might say to the contrary, is designed to maintain the status quo.

There is a perfectly simple alternative of which, I believe, Ruskin would have approved. It is to fund all the arts in the way that libraries, those excellent examples of Victorian idealism, are funded. Writers have always been expected to pay their own way, but readers for at least a hundred years have been able to borrow whatever books they wish to read from a public library. Art galleries in the great industrial cities of the north grew up in the same way, a product of the same educational vision, an idealistic, even communistic, belief in an educated working class as a prerequisite for a modern, civilised, enlightened country. The money did not go to the writers or the artists, except through the purchase of their works (if they were still alive), but to the building and upkeep of the places where people could, without paying, look at the pictures on the walls or take the books home to read.

This is so much taken for granted now that the wonder of it, the generous spirit that made it possible and the infinite good that has come from it, are too easily forgotten. So why should the same principle not apply to the other arts?

For a while, in the middle of the last century, it did. J.B.Priestley’s Good Companions was one way, Hampstead and the other Little Theatres another. Between the two was a well-travelled road on which amateurs and professionals passed in both directions. The Little Theatres were amateur reps. The Hampstead Little Theatre specialised in new writing. The Bradford Civic Playhouse, which I joined when I was fifteen, put on a new production every three weeks. Each production ran for a week, followed by a fortnight in which the theatre became an art-house cinema. It was where I saw not only my first Shakespeares, Ibsens and Chekhovs, but also my first Godards, Fellinis and Bergmans. If I had been ten years older, I would have seen Robert Stephens and Billie Whitelaw when they were still amateurs. I did see Gorden Kaye, when he was still Gordon Kaye and a regular in comic roles for the Little Theatres in Bradford and Huddersfield, before he turned pro and became a few years later a café owner in occupied Paris, René in the BBC Television series ’Allo ’Allo.

Most of the good actors did not turn pro but went on performing as amateurs in Bradford, Huddersfield, Hampstead and elsewhere. Most writers write part-time while earning their living in some other way. If that is what amateur means, most writers are amateurs. Charles Causley taught at his local primary school and retired, not very early, as Deputy Head and famous poet. T.S.Eliot worked at a bank, then turned to publishing. Teaching and banking used to be the employment of choice for writers, offering long holidays in one case, short working hours in the other and job security in both.

Any kind of state patronage of the arts is pernicious in its effect and undemocratic in its operation. The law of money in this case works like the law of pocket money. Artists who are given too much behave like spoilt children. They spend it on the wrong things (costumes) and if it is taken away they stamp their feet. Governments are not supposed to have favourites, as monarchs did in the past, but an Arts Council that chooses which artists to favour with its grants does just that. It should not be the job of the government or any of its so-called arms-length agencies to decide, as Stalin did, which artists should rise and which should fall.

The government should wash its hands of public funding for the arts. Its job is to support readers not writers, audiences not performers, democratic communities not cultural hierarchies. The false distinction between amateur and professional which state funding has encouraged in the performing arts should be allowed to wither. Without it, people will go on making music and putting on plays in the ways that they have always done in the buildings that fair-minded parish, town and city councils have always provided and which, with £337,000,000 a year to share equally between them, they could afford to spruce up.

The law of money should not apply in the world of the imagination. It is after all a world made up of lunatics, lovers and poets, the very last people you would want to trust with your money.

ruskin 03

My next post, Late Poems, will appear on 26 November.

My next Reader’s Diary will appear on 3 December.

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Always afternoon

It is clear from the very first lines of Tennyson’s poem, The Lotos-Eaters, that the interest of this brief episode from Homer’s Odyssey lay for him not in Greek myth but in modern life, not in Odysseus but in the state of mind of his weary companions. In the original, the tale is told by Odysseus himself and he, not unnaturally, takes centre stage. After nine days of battling storms at sea, he says, we took refuge on an island. The men he sent out to explore the island failed to return. ‘All they now wanted was to stay where they were with the Lotos-eaters, to browse on the lotos, and to forget all thoughts of return. I had to use force to bring them back to the hollow ships, and they wept on the way, but once on board I tied them up and dragged them under the benches.’ He goes on to describe at much greater length their arrival in the land of the one-eyed Cyclops and his own cunning defeat of Polyphemus.

Tennyson lets Odysseus begin the story –

‘Courage!’ he said, and pointed toward the land.
‘This mounting wave will roll us shore-ward soon.’

– but then forgets him.

In the afternoon they came unto a land
In which it seemed always afternoon.

What might otherwise have been an exotic adventure in a land far away is brought home, domesticated, by that one word, afternoon, and its associations for us with rest and peace. Imagine if an afternoon nap could last forever!

He goes on to describe the country in which they find themselves in words that are anything but domestic, but the word he planted first in our minds cannot be dislodged. The rhymes themselves keep bringing it back.

All round the coast the languid air did swoon,
Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.
Full-faced above the valley stood the moon;
And like the downward smoke, the slender stream
Along the cliff to fall and pause and fall did seem.

A dozen more lines of sensuous description complete the picture, which he sums up in one of those lines that express both a feeling and a thought.

A land where all things always seem’d the same!

A line so surprising, so apt, that it deserves its exclamation mark. There follow three of the most striking lines that Tennyson ever wrote, weaving out of pure sound an unforgettable image.

And round about the keel with faces pale,
Dark faces pale against that rosy flame,
The mild-eyed melancholy Lotos-eaters came.

The image is developed in the next few lines until, as he does at moments throughout the poem, he brings us to another moment of stillness and finality.

Most weary seem’d the sea, weary the oar,
Weary the wandering fields of barren foam.
Then someone said, ‘We will return no more.’

The drama of the poem, from its first word, through the journey inland and the meeting with the Lotos-eaters, to this moment of decision, is further reinforced by the ‘Choric Song’ which follows. Third person narration in the past tense gives way to the immediacy of speech in the manner of a chorus in a Greek tragedy.

Why are we weigh’d upon with heaviness
And utterly consumed with sharp distress,
While all things else have rest from weariness?

The song is a hymn in praise of idleness, or rather a lament for the life of toil to which man, since the Fall, has been condemned. In verse after verse, image after image, Tennyson evokes the sense of deep and lasting peace that comes from simply giving up. The chorus begins by comparing it to music –

Music that gentlier on the spirit lies,
Than tir’d eyelids upon tir’d eyes.

Why is rest denied to us, alone among all living things?

Why are we weigh’d upon with heaviness
And utterly consumed with sharp distress,
While all things else have rest from weariness?

Better to be a fruit or a flower!

The flower ripens in its place,
Ripens and fades, and falls, and hath no toil,
Fast-rooted in the fruitful soil.

Please, they beg, just leave us here!

Let us alone. Time driveth onward fast,
And in a little while our lips are dumb.
Let us alone. What is it that will last?
All things are taken from us, and become
Portions and parcels of the dreadful Past.
Let us alone.

And anyway, they ask, what would be the point in going back?

Dear is the memory of our wedded lives,
And dear the last embraces of our wives,
And their warm tears: but all hath suffer’d change:
For surely now our household hearths are cold:
Our sons inherit us: our looks are strange:
And we should come like ghosts to trouble joy.

The hymn ends where it began.

Oh rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.

No wonder they wept when Odysseus forced them back. But Tennyson makes no mention of that. In his version, the crew stay where they are.

The poem for which Tennyson now is best known, perhaps the only poem of his which is still read, In Memoriam, begins and ends with a disclaimer. In the introductory verses, which were added later, he begs forgiveness of God and, by implication, of the reading public.

Forgive these wild and wandering cries,
  Confusions of a wasted youth;
  Forgive them where they fail in truth,
And in thy wisdom make me wise.

In the epilogue (or epithalamium on the marriage of his daughter, who might have married his friend if he had lived, to someone else) he proclaims himself older and wiser –

Which makes appear the songs I made
  As echoes out of weaker times,
  As half but idle brawling rhymes,
The sport of random sun and shade.

In Memoriam AHH was a private poem written by a public poet. It is a collection of short lyric poems written while Tennyson was grieving for the premature death of his close friend, Arthur Hugh Hallam. The Lotos-eaters, like all his others poems, is not lyric but epic. It tells a story. Many, like his Idylls of the King, are full-blown epics, in length as well as subject and style. Others dramatise a single moment in a longer story. Odysseus has a poem of his own, called by his other name, Ulysses, in which, at the end of his life, he expresses a desire for new adventures.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

The idea of poetry as the expression of the poet’s own feelings has prevailed for so long now that anything else seems false. There are no poets in the so-called ‘public square’ only ‘public intellectuals’. It is a place that poets shy away from, perhaps because they remember what it did to Tennyson when his expression of private grief failed to find favour with a censorious Victorian public.

Today the raw emotion of In Memoriam is what we expect from poetry. In poem VII, when the sleepless poet goes out into the London streets to stand outside his friend’s house, we share in his sorrow and his despair.

He is not here; but far away
  The noise of life begins again,
  And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

No doubt some Victorian readers sympathised, but many regretted the loss of their poet’s stiff upper lip. The fact is that, in writing about himself, Tennyson was most successful, as in the verse quoted, when he wrote as he would if he were writing about somebody else. As a poet, an epic poet, a public poet, his task was to make the story come alive, to make the experience vivid and immediate for the reader. He does this in poem VII by showing us the ‘long unlovely street’ to which ‘at earliest morning’ he returns, just as he does in The Lotos-eaters by showing us the land ‘in which it seemed always afternoon’. Time after time, he surprises us with things that we feel we already know. No writer can do that without an awareness of the public and epic nature of poetry, as well as the private and lyric.

The moments when the lyric and epic strands in English poetry intersect are precisely those when English poets come closest to greatness. Story and song, public and private, coming together. The greatest English epic poem of all, by the greatest English epic poet, ends on a note of pure lyricism.

The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

tennyson 01

The next post will be my Reader’s Diary for 19 November.

My post on 26 November will be about the late poems of Philip Larkin and R.S.Thomas.

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A Reader’s Diary, 5 November 2014

John Sutherland of The Times is quoted under the heading ‘Praise for The Lie’ in the paperback edition of the book as saying, ‘Helen Dunmore’s two resources are imagination and research.’ The former is something a novelist can hardly do without, but the latter has only recently come into fashion. How much research did Tolstoy do before he wrote War and Peace or Dickens before he wrote A Tale of Two Cities or E.M.Forster before he wrote A Passage to India? I don’t know, but I think the answer would be not much because it was what they knew already that made them want to write the book. A historical event, for a novelist, is a metaphor, the historical truth less important than the universal truth it embodies. Why would you consult someone whose principal skill is in making things up if what you want to know is what really happened?

What Helen Dunmore and other so-called historical novelists do, of course, is not the kind of research that historians do, but the kind that is needed to give their works of fiction a veneer of historical accuracy. What we get in The Lie and other books of that ilk is not so much history as period detail. On the first page, the smell of a First World War trench is described as ‘full of shit and rotten flesh, cordite and chloride of lime’. Who but a novelist who has done her research would know about chloride of lime? Does it help the reader to imagine the smell? No, but that is not its purpose. Its purpose is to present the writer’s credentials as someone who knows what she is talking about.

Lists are a common feature of these novels and serve the same purpose. On page 3, a list of the vegetables growing in a vegetable patch: ‘early potatoes, turnips, carrots, beetroot, spring cabbages’. On page 22, a list of coins: ‘florins, some sixpences, a few joeys and a heap of copper.’ On page 23, a list of food for foraging: ‘Mussels on the rocks, samphire growing around the estuary in season, spider crabs and wild strawberries, blackberries, elderberries, bread and cheese from the hawthorn, new dandelion leaves for salad, chervil, nettles for soup in spring.’ The point is (and I can hear the creative writing class tutor saying this) to be convincing. Your characters must never smoke a cigarette, they must smoke a particular brand of cigarette. In The Lie it’s Woodbines or Players. It’s not enough for the hero to dry his hands on a towel. What kind of towel did people dry their hands on in those days? ‘I work up a lather, then swill my face and arms and dry myself carefully on the roller towel.’ (p213) Goodness! Is that really how people used to get washed? This writer really knows her stuff, doesn’t she?

The historical novelist’s obsession with period detail is one thing, but when the novel is written in the first person, in this case a survivor of the First World War, the effect can be incongruous. The narrative voice seems to belong less to a young man suffering from shell-shock than to a National Trust guide.

Badenheim 1939 by Aharon Appelfeld is a very different kind of historical novel. His imagined town, in which the experience of German Jews in 1939 is given a story-book treatment which makes the reality all the more vivid and horrifying, owes everything to imagination and nothing to research. The opening paragraph sets the scene.

‘Spring returned to Badenheim. In the country church next to the town the bells rang. The shadows of the forest retreated to the trees. The sun scattered the remnants of the darkness and its light filled the main street from square to square. It was a moment of transition. The town was about to be invaded by the vacationers. Two inspectors passed through an alley, examining the flow of the sewage in the pipes. The town, which had changed its inhabitants many times in the course of the years, had kept its modest beauty.’

Badenheim has its idiosyncracies, which the inhabitants, the vacationers and, following their example, the reader, come to accept.

‘Spring rose in a dark green haze from the gardens. The two local prostitutes, Sally and Gertie, put on summer dresses and strolled down the avenue. In the beginning the inhabitants of the town had tried to get them thrown out, but the campaign, which began many years ago, had come to nothing in the end. The town had grown used to them, as it had grown used to Dr Pappenheim’s eccentricities and to the foreigners who had insinuated themselves like diseased roots.’

The vacationers who come to stay in the town’s hotel and enjoy the entertainment organised by Dr Pappenheim find themselves, as the season advances and the inspectors go on with their work, less able to move freely outside the hotel. Rumours grow that they are to be taken back to Poland, where they once lived. They convince themselves and each other that they will enjoy that. On the last page, a train arrives.

‘An engine, an engine coupled to four filthy freight cars, emerged from the hills and stopped at the station. Its appearance was as sudden as if it had risen from a pit in the ground. “Get in!” yelled invisible voices. And the people were sucked in. Even those who were standing with a bottle of lemonade in their hands, a bar of chocolate, the headwaiter with his dog – they were all sucked in as easily as grains of wheat poured into a funnel. Nevertheless Dr Pappenheim found time to make the following remark: “If the coaches are so dirty it must mean that we have not far to go.”’

Toytown Badenheim is a fictional creation, not a re-creation of Europe during the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s, but an imagined town whose reality contains within itself the unimaginable reality of the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews. The Jews themselves, trapped inside the hotel, are the holocaust deniers.

Trapped inside The Lie is a good novel, perhaps even a great novel, a work of imagination in which a First World War survivor hides from the real world in a world he makes for himself in an old woman’s cottage, burying her when she dies, hiding the truth of her death from the real world outside, living with the ghost of a friend who died in the trenches, suffering in the end the inevitable consequence of the lies and the deaths. Alas, too much research, too little imagination!

helen dunmore 01  aharon appelfeld 01

My next post will appear on 12 November and will be about Tennyson’s poem, The Lotos Eaters.

My next Reader’s Diary  will appear on 19 November.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for Christmas presents for book lovers, try Vive le Mole! the grown-up sequel to The Wind in the Willows.

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