Kenneth Grahame, the author of one of the most famous and best loved of all children’s books, was a banker. Born in 1859, he worked his way up to become Secretary of the Bank of England, a post from which he retired in 1908. The Wind in the Willows was published in the same year. He once said that the part of his brain he used between the ages of four and seven had never changed.
Few people now read his other books, The Golden Age and Dream Days, which were once as popular as The Wind in the Willows. Both are what would now be called memoirs, recollections of his childhood in which real and imagined adventures are re-told. One of the stories in Dream Days had an after-life as a Walt Disney film and a John Rutter opera. In its original form, the story is told to the young Kenneth and his friend, Charlotte, by an old man who lives nearby. Kenneth and Charlotte are looking for the tracks of dragons in the snow and the man, entering into the spirit of their game, tells them a story about one. The chapter in which this happens begins like this:
‘Footprints in the snow have been unfailing provokers of sentiment ever since snow was first a white wonder in this drab-coloured world of ours. In a poetry-book presented to one of us by an aunt, there was a poem by one Wordsworth in which they stood out strongly with a picture all to themselves, too – but we didn’t think very highly either of the poem or the sentiment. Footprints in the sand, now, were quite another matter, and we grasped Crusoe’s attitude of mind much more easily than Wordsworth’s. Excitement and mystery, curiosity and suspense – these were the only sentiments that tracks, whether in sand or snow, were able to arouse in us.’
These books, which were written ten years before The Wind in the Willows, were not only, or even primarily, books for children, but books about being a child, to which the author applied the appropriate part of his brain. It was unusual at the time when they were written for the child’s point of view to be elevated above that of the adult and that was what caught people’s attention when they were published. Kenneth Grahame, writing about his own childhood, brought children into the foreground, while he hovered behind them, entering into their games like the old man who told the story of the Reluctant Dragon.
In the first chapter of The Golden Age he tells us that things might have been different if he had been brought up by parents, as most children are, instead of by aunts and uncles. ‘They treated us,’ he writes, ‘with kindness enough as to the needs of the flesh, but after that with indifference (an indifference, as I recognise, the result of a certain stupidity), and therewith the commonplace conviction that your child is merely animal. At a very early age I remember realising, in a quite impersonal and kindly way, the existence of that stupidity, and its tremendous influence in the world.’ He called them ‘The Olympians’ and ended the chapter on a cautionary note: ‘A saddening doubt, a dull suspicion, creeps over me. Et in Arcadia ego – I certainly did once inhabit Arcady. Can it be that I also have become an Olympian?’
The Wind in the Willows was different from the other two in being a wholly made-up book for children to read, but not in its vocabulary, syntax or points of reference different from a book for grown-ups. On the first page we read a sentence which, in all three respects, is entirely grown-up. ‘Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.’ Anyone who has read The Wind in the Willows as a child, recognises Mole when he meets him again as Mr Polly or Mr Lewisham.
The best children’s writers don’t write about a child’s world as if it is in some way different from the adult world. Instead, they bring a child’s intelligence to bear on the world we all inhabit. Even so, I wonder whether all those books that are written now just for children may not be an unmixed blessing. It is not just that children might be missing out on vocabulary, syntax and points of reference, but that ‘the commonplace conviction that your child is merely animal’ may have been strengthened rather than diminished by the creation of a separate literature for children. Books as pet food. Let the children have their books, let the grown-ups have theirs and let there be no confusion between the two.
‘The only excuse which I have yet discovered for writing anything,’ wrote A.A.Milne, ‘is that I want to write it; and I should be as proud to be delivered of a Telephone Directory con amore as I should be ashamed to create a Blank Verse Tragedy at the bidding of others.’ Having delivered himself of Now We Are Seven and The House at Pooh Corner, he watched in dismay as the audience for his plays, thinking that anything written by A.A.Milne must be for children, dried up. He died by all accounts a rather unhappy man.
J.M.Barrie wrote books and plays for adults before he wrote Peter Pan and went on writing them long after. In the opinion of George Bernard Shaw, it was ‘ostensibly a holiday entertainment for children but really a play for grown-up people.’ Lewis Carroll followed up Alice in Wonderland with An Elementary Treatise on Determinants. A representative selection from Robert Louis Stevenson’s work in order of publication would include Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, Familiar Studies of Men and Books, Virginibus Puerisque, Treasure Island, A Child’s Garden of Verses, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Kidnapped, The Master of Ballantrae and In The South Seas. E.Nesbit was one of the founders of the Fabian Society (she named her son after the society) and wrote socialist tracts as well as The Railway Children.
The 21st century is not so very different from the 19th when it comes to the attitude of grown-ups to children. We still, most of us, look down on them from Mount Olympus. ‘Can it be denied,’ Matthew Arnold wrote in his essay on Democracy, ‘that to live in a society of equals tends in general to make a man’s spirits expand, and his faculties work easily and actively; while, to live in a society of superiors, although it may occasionally be a very good discipline, yet in general tends to tame the spirits and to make the play of the faculties less secure and active? Can it be denied that to be heavily overshadowed, to be profoundly insignificant, has, on the whole, a depressing and benumbing effect on the character?’
He was writing about the different classes in English society, comparing England unfavourably with France, but he could as easily have been writing about children. England is still as much a ‘society of superiors’ as it ever was and its children are still made to feel profoundly insignificant, mere adults in the making, soon to be fully fledged contributors to the economy. We observe that the children of what used to be called the lower orders do less well at school and persuade ourselves that it is possible to do something about it without ordering society differently. We take it as a fact of life that some people are more equal than others. We, that is to say English grown-ups, say that children who murder other children are evil, but lack the honesty and courage of Prospero to say, ‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.’
England needs more bankers like Kenneth Grahame, more school inspectors like Matthew Arnold, fewer Olympians and a greater sense of equality in the literary world between those who still have that part of their brain they used when they were children and those who don’t.
Next week’s post, on 12 March, will be the latest entry in my Reader’s Diary.
The post on 19 March will be about Othello.
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Productions of Shakespeare are to directors as fashion shows are to designers. The pressure is on to do something different and get noticed. I saw a production of Othello earlier this month in which, not only was the text drastically cut, but the cast also doubled as a string ensemble, playing violin or cello during or between their own and each other’s speeches. The oddity of this interpretation led me to think about the difference between directors and conductors. The musical equivalent would be for a conductor of, say, Beethoven’s 5th to rearrange the score for different instruments and tell the musicians to recite poetry when they were not playing, or even when they were.
Why do theatre directors feel at liberty to make cuts, when orchestral conductors adhere faithfully to the score, even in some cases using period instruments to make the sound as authentic as possible? Why do we accept in the theatre something to which we would object strongly in the concert hall? We want our music to sound like it did when it was written, but plays have to be made relevant to the modern age.
Fear of directors wanting to make their mark must be what has led modern dramatists to embellish their scripts with the equivalent of the composer’s fortes and pianos, andantes and allegros. Even without them, a director with an ear for poetry and a cast able to speak it should be able to give us Shakespeare’s lines exactly as he wanted them to be heard. I would be happy if every production of Othello was exactly the same, so long as it was the Othello that Shakespeare intended.
I read Othello for myself the following night and enjoyed it far more than I did in the theatre the night before. I have read more of Shakespeare’s plays than I have seen performed. Opportunities for most people to see plays at all are limited by time, money and opportunity, so we should read them instead. Little is lost by reading and sometimes a lot can be gained. Playwrights would do well to cultivate a reading audience, not only as an additional income stream, but as a way of developing their craft. Writing to be read is the same as writing to be heard. The unadorned word on the page should be able to survive without set, costumes or even actors. If it can’t, the play will have a short life.
A play, whether read at home or seen in the theatre, is a life lived in an evening. After Shakespeare, I turned to another dramatist whose plays I have rarely seen but often read, Eugene O’Neill. I read Desire Under the Elms, which I had read before, but so long ago that I had forgotten it. O’Neill has whole pages of stage directions and character descriptions. Reading one of his plays is not unlike reading a novella with a lot of dialogue. The script begins with a description of the set (‘Exterior of the farm-house. It is sunset of a day at the beginning of summer in the year 1850. There is no wind and everything is still.’) then of the first character to come on stage (‘A door opens and Eben Cabot comes to the end of the porch and stands looking down the road to the right. He has a large bell in his hand and this he swings mechanically, awakening a deafening clangour.’) whom O’Neill goes on to describe not just in terms of appearance, but of character and temperament too (‘His defiant dark eyes remind one of a wild animal’s in captivity. Each day is a cage in which he finds himself trapped, but inwardly subdued.’) before taking him offstage again (‘He spits on the ground with intense disgust, turns and goes back into the house.’) having so far given him only one line, a line which he ‘blurts out with halting appreciation’ while standing with his hands on his hips, looking up at the sky and sighing ‘with a puzzled awe’: “God! Purty!”
O’Neill’s stage directions help you to hear the voices, nearly every line being preceded by the equivalent of a presto or lento. From the second page alone come the following: grudgingly, suddenly, with indifferent finality, vaguely, growing excited, with sardonic bitterness. But there remains, for an English reader, the problem of the American accent. What accent should I be hearing? I have in my head only the all-purpose accent that passes for American over here and this, I am sure, is not what I should be hearing from farmers in mid-nineteenth century New England. I tried it without an accent of any kind, but that was unsatisfactory. The line spoken with sardonic bitterness needs a genuine voice to make it work, to bring out the poetry: “Here – it’s stones atop o’ the ground – stones atop o’ stones – makin’ stone walls – year atop o’ year – him ’n’ yew ’n’ me ’n’ then Eben – makin’ stone walls fur him to fence us in!” When I was some way into the play, still feeling dissatisfied with the voice I was hearing, I tried hearing it in Welsh. Surprisingly, it worked, and since I only had myself to please, that was how I went on reading it. Desire in the Valleys. If I were French or German or Dutch, reading it in translation, I would hear it in whatever rural accent I had in my head. So why not in English, which bears only a superficial resemblance to the language O’Neill wrote in? His farmhouse in New England could be mine in Glamorgan.
Next week’s post, on 5 March, will be about banker and children’s author, Kenneth Grahame.
The next entry in my Readers’ Diary will be published on 12 March.
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‘Fern Hill’ is a kind of tone poem, a musical form reclaimed for literature by Dylan Thomas. In six stanzas, he evokes the innocence and wonder of childhood and sets it against the inexorable advance of time and death.
The first stanza introduces the theme with a lilting rhythm and a long melody line that is sustained at a moderate pace, each phrase ending on a rising note, until the stanza ends with a rallentando and a falling note on the last line. The stanza goes from:
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
The second stanza is, in musical terms, an almost exact repetition of the first, a re-statement of the theme, and hearing it again makes us more aware of some of its key features. In particular, we hear again and again, phrases that are essentially variations on a theme, both in sound and meaning. ‘Young and easy’ in the first stanza becomes ‘green and carefree’ in the second, ‘about the lilting house’ becomes ‘about the happy yard’, ‘golden in the heydays of his eyes’ becomes ‘golden in the mercy of his means’ and so on.
But we become aware in the second stanza of something we might have missed in the first: the passage of time. ‘Time let me play and be’ in the second, coming after ‘In the sun that is young once only’, reminds us of ‘Time let me hail and climb’ in the first, but this time sounds a different note, something ominous, a note of warning. There is something different too in the lines which end the second stanza, slowing down even more than those which ended the first.
And the Sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.
The rhyming words, ‘slowly’ and ‘holy’, are still echoing as the stanza concludes with ‘streams’. They toll like a bell.
The poem comes to a momentary halt, a thoughtful pause, then races off again at breakneck speed.
All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
This is the scherzo. It has a different shape from the first two stanzas, though it looks the same on paper, two contrasting halves, one of daytime, the other of night, ‘all the sun long’ in the first half, ‘all the moon long’ in the second.
Then comes something like an anthem, beginning with:
… the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden
and ending with:
… the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.
After this interlude, the fifth stanza returns to the form and mood of the first. ‘And honoured among foxes and pheasants’ it begins, echoing ‘honoured among wagons’ and ‘famous among the barns’. But soon we hear again the tolling of the bell, as time, halfway through the stanza, makes his next appearance.
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning, so few and such morning songs.
A presence we hardly noticed to begin with now forces itself on our attention and becomes the dominant theme for the rest of the poem. There is no break between the fifth stanza and the last, which begins with a variation on the lines that precede it.
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand
In the moon that is always rising.
In this way, as much by musical means as by the meaning of the words, we are led to the poem’s conclusion, in which the child’s innocent delight is held in balance with the adult premonition.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
In ‘Fern Hill’, Dylan Thomas wrote a poem as insistent on the power of the human spirit in the face of death as he did in ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’. In both, it is the musical quality of his writing, whether in the manner of Claude Debussy or Charles Wesley, that gives it such force and lifts the spirit of the listener. The best way to appreciate that is to listen to Dylan Thomas himself reading them, which you can do by clicking on the titles.
Next week’s Reader’s Diary will be posted on 26 February.
The week after that, on 5 March, I will be writing about banker and children’s author, Kenneth Grahame.
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I couldn’t let Valentine’s Day go by without a poem. It’s one I wrote a few years ago and it’s not exactly a love poem, certainly not one to copy out in your Valentine’s Day card, but it might strike a chord with anyone who has ever said, “Can’t we just be friends?”
THE ROSE GROWER’S TRAGEDY
Fearing Love wouldn’t grow on its own roots
He grafted it onto the rootstock Friendship,
Binding the union tightly with his hands
And sealing it with a kiss.
But the plant failed to thrive.
Friendship sulked and wouldn’t grow.
Love put forth no new leaves.
Impatiently he dug it up,
Threw it on the fire and turned away.
He didn’t see the roots of Friendship
Shrink in pain and turn to ash
As the fire burned round them.
He didn’t see Love’s dormant buds
Open briefly in the flame to flower
In a moment of fierce beauty
Before the smoke carried
Their sad story to the sky.
Back to normal next Wednesday with an essay on Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas, by which time The Rose Grower’s Tragedy will have found its way to the Poems page.
The following week, Wednesday 26 February, it will be my next Reader’s Diary.
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I am still reading Kilvert’s Diary a little at a time, which is I think the way it should be read, and keep coming across little gems of descriptive prose, insights into human nature and observations on a world in which early death was so common as to be almost unremarkable. It was a world of very different attitudes from ours in other ways too, as appears in the entry for 6 August 1874 in which he recounts a visit to one of his parishioners.
‘She was also troubled about her daughter Fanny who grieves her sadly by frequently lying and stealing. I told her she must correct the girl in time. “I do flog her,” she said. “And the other morning she was a naughty girl and her brother Joseph brought her in to me in her shimmy while I was in bed. I held her hands while Joseph and Charlie whipped her on her naked bottom as hard as ever they were able to flog her.”
A few days later, he is called back to the house because the child is ill.
‘I sat down by the bed and took her little hot hand. She seemed very feverish but was quite sensible and appeared to be very much softened and humbled. If so the severe chastisement she has undergone may have had a happy effect and have broken her self-will and cured her of her faults. Her parents very wisely have not spared her nor the rod.’
Peirene Press have just published their latest European novella, The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov, translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield. In any translated work, two barriers stand between you and the original, one linguistic, the other cultural. Even the best translators use words that are only approximations to the words the writer uses and that, even if they have the same literal meaning, might lack other qualities the writer chose them for. A writer’s voice, belonging as it does to a particular language, is almost impossible to reproduce in another. But given a good translation, the linguistic barrier can to some degree be overcome. The cultural barrier however is something the reader must tackle alone. The more we know about a country’s history and geography, the more of its books we read, the more of its music we listen to, the more of its art we look at, the deeper our understanding and the greater our appreciation will be of each of them.
The Dead Lake is my first experience of the literature of Uzbekistan. It was written in Russian but its author is an Usbek who writes in both Uzbek and Russian. The story itself is set in Kazakhstan. It begins on a train ‘travelling across the boundless steppes of Kazakhstan’. Whenever the train stops at a remote station during the course of the long journey, the narrator hears trackmen tapping on the wheels and ‘swearing in Kazakh’. He feels ‘a secret pride that I could understand them’. English readers, being mostly monolingual, will have difficulty identifying with this at anything but an abstract level.
Difference is one of Hamid Ismailov’s themes: alien landscapes, a man no bigger than a boy, a woman much taller than the man she loves, nature made unnatural by the distorting pressure of exploding bombs. Stories is another and the first to be introduced. The story begins, ‘This story began in the most prosaic fashion possible.’ A few paragraphs later, ‘So that’s the beginning of the story’. This is a story about a story. Ismailov’s story-telling style is rather plain and spare, the style of a story-teller rather than a story-writer. Folk tales, legends and old songs keep cropping up. The narrator starts by listening to someone else telling a story, then takes over himself, making it up as he goes along, while the story-teller sleeps. After a while, we don’t know who to believe. Is it a true story, a fiction, a legend, a metaphor, a parable?
‘Ismailov,’ a reviewer in The Independent is quoted as saying, ‘belongs to the tradition of Russian satirical novelists, from Gogol to Bulgakov and Platonov’. That’s quite a tradition and there are times when he reminds us of all of them. But there are as many differences between those three Russians as there are similarities. So is it really helpful to say that he belongs to such a diverse tradition? The reviewer perhaps feels the need to place the writer somewhere, so he invents a ‘tradition of Russian satirical novelists’ and puts him there. Another reviewer writes, ‘Like a market trader cascading one colourful rug after another at us, Hamid Ismailov unrolls his chapters vivid with exuberant detail and exotic colour’. This reviewer really is getting carried away, more interested in his or her own metaphors than Ismailov’s and, incidentally, creating a completely false impression of Ismailov’s writing, which is anything but exuberant and whose colours are anything but exotic. ‘The steppe looked just like the steppe: a small sun, as sharp as a nail, in a boundless, weary sky, scorched grassy stubble and stale, motionless air droning between them’ is a fairly typical piece of description. Beautiful writing, but not my idea of a colourful rug.
We depend on cultural context, even more than language, for our understanding of literature. We should be honest when we don’t have one and admit to the limitations that creates for us. Peirene Press itself describes The Dead Lake as ‘a haunting tale about the environmental legacy of the Cold War’, which led me to expect something different from what I actually read. What I read was a haunting tale about the steppes of Kazakhstan and the blighted life of a man, trapped in a child’s body, the truth of whose story remains ambiguous and elusive. But how much of that is due to my ignorance and how much a feature of Ismailov’s writing is something I can only find out by reading more of his books. Only two, A Poet and Bin-Laden and The Railway, have so far been translated into English. The Dead Lake makes me want to read both of them.
Meanwhile, in his diary entry for 7 October 1874, Kilvert describes a moment familiar to all writers, no matter what language they write in.
‘For some time I have been trying to find the right word for the shimmering glancing twinkling movement of the poplar leaves in the sun and wind. This afternoon I saw the word written on the poplar leaves. It was “dazzle”. The dazzle of the poplars.’
The subject of my next essay, on 19 February, will be Fern Hill, the first of half-a-dozen or so that I’ll be writing on Dylan Thomas in his centenary year.
The next Reader’s Diary will be published on 26 February.
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Comedies are not easy to read. In tragedy words are everything, in comedy it is the action, the way the characters interact, that matters. Every comedian knows that the laugh depends not just on the action but the reaction. So while you’re reading the script you must not only hear what a character is saying, but see in your mind’s eye what everyone else is doing at the same time.
This is true to some extent of all comedies, but especially of the comedies of Ben Jonson, whose skill in assembling large groups of characters on stage in comic situations is unsurpassed. Such was his influence that it is true of almost every play that has been written since, comic or otherwise.
Jonsonian comedy is different from Shakespearean comedy. Shakespeare’s comedies are love stories, Jonson’s are commentaries on the behaviour of urban man. There is really no difference between Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies apart from the prevailing mood. There is no lack of humour in Romeo and Juliet or of pathos in Twelfth Night. All Shakespeare’s plays are, as Polonius puts it, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral.
They are all, whether tragical, comical, historical or pastoral, dramatic poems. They work on our imaginations by means of metaphor. We can read them for ourselves as poems or we can watch them being acted out. Either way, the imaginative world they create is achieved through poetic language, not through action or comic business or gesture or any other theatrical effect, just words.
Jonson’s comedies are sketches drawn from life using everyday language. As he put it himself in the prologue to Every Man in his Humour, his plays had no need of a chorus, such as that in Shakespeare’s Henry V, to ‘waft you overseas’ –
‘But deeds, and language, such as men do use,
And persons, such as comedy would choose,
When she would show an image of the times,
And sport with human follies, not with crimes.’
Even when he writes in blank verse, as in Sejanus, one of his two tragedies, Jonson uses language ‘such as men do use’ to describe, for example, Sejanus’s hangers-on. They are, he says –
‘ready to praise
His lordship, if he spit, or but piss fair,
Have an indifferent stool, or break wind well.’
Jonson’s contributions to the English language do not rank with Shakespeare’s, but his theatrical legacy is far greater. Poetry and drama went their separate ways after Shakespeare. Playwrights ever since have written, in ‘language such as men do use’, plays that are ‘an image of the times’.
Contemporary, cutting-edge English theatres like The Bush, whose mission is to produce plays that are ‘relevant to a contemporary London audience’ are, whether they know it or not, the direct descendants of Ben Jonson.
Jonson himself was a product of post-Reformation England, an England whose individualist and capitalist foundations had already been laid by Thomas Cromwell and built on with materials salvaged from the abbeys he knocked down. Jonson’s comedies have been re-written ever since by John Gay, William Congreve, George Bernard Shaw, Joe Orton, Mike Leigh, Alan Ayckbourn, David Hare and the rest, mocking bourgeois pretension, exposing hypocrisy, revealing the corrupt underbelly of modern society, regarding them however, not as crimes, but as follies.
The distinction is important because it derives from a view of the world which is individualist and humanist, rather than communal and religious. That was the old, Catholic world, the world that saw King Lear raging against hypocrisy, not mocking it.
‘Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand!
Why does thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back;
Thou hotly lusts to use her in that kind
For which thou whipst her.’
The drama of King Lear is possible only in a world where universal values still have some credibility, however faint.
‘And my poor fool is hang’d! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all?’
In a world which is guided only by self-interest, enlightened or otherwise, it is possible only to mock human follies, not universally to condemn them, to deal only with the particular, not the universal. Hence Jonson’s credo and Lear’s despair.
‘When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools!’
That was the stage that Jonson created and that we enjoy still. The other stage, the one that Shakespeare called ‘this wooden O’, has not disappeared altogether, just gone abroad. It flourished for a while in mid-twentieth century America, in the plays of Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Glass Menagerie, The Crucible and the rest, each a poetic drama, though written in prose, aiming at a metaphorical depiction of the human condition, not just ‘an image of the times’. In Ireland too, in the plays of Synge and O’Casey, we find a poetic spirit which does not depend wholly on actors to make it work, but which is able to make the transition from page to imagination without expert assistance.
Another Irishman, living in Paris, wrote the play that Shakespeare would have gone on to write after The Tempest had he lived long enough. What are Vladimir and Estragon after all but washed up sailors, surviving on what was left after Prospero drowned his book? What is Lucky but Ariel on a lead?
But for the most part and certainly in England, we live with the spirit of Ben Jonson, with realism, on stage and screen, mocking human follies in language such as men do use.
The next post will be my Reader’s Diary on 12 February.
The subject of my next essay, on 19 February, will be Fern Hill, the first of half-a-dozen or so that I’ll be writing on Dylan Thomas in his centenary year.
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John Clare wrote three kinds of poem: observations on himself (‘I am – yet what I am none cares or knows’), observations on social change (‘Enclosure like a Bonaparte let not a thing remain’) and observations on natural history, the last being the kind he wrote most. Writing natural history in verse makes him part of a long tradition, reaching back to Lucretius and Virgil, but he reaches forward too. The immediacy of his observations calls to mind the commentaries we are used to hearing in television programmes about nature. In The Nightingale’s Nest, he leads us on a country walk, speaking directly to us as if we were there with him.
‘Up this green woodland-ride let’s softly rove
And list the nightingale – she dwells just here.’
It is easy to imagine the familiar voice of David Attenborough speaking in hushed tones as he creeps through the undergrowth.
‘Hark! there she is as usual – let’s be hush –
For in this blackthorn-clump, if rightly guessed,
Her curious house is hidden. Part aside
These hazel branches in a gentle way
And stoop right cautious ‘neath the rustling boughs…’
The camera follows him in. We hear the rustling as he creeps under the branches. We hold our breath. The tension mounts.
‘Ay, as I live – her secret nest is here,
Upon this whitethorn stulp. I’ve searched about
For hours in vain – there, put that bramble by –
Nay, trample on its branches and get near.’
The camera focuses on the nest and the naturalist describes it for us.
‘How curious is the nest: no other bird
Uses such loose materials or weaves
Its dwelling in such spots – dead oaken leaves
Are placed without and velvet moss within
And little scraps of grass and, scant and spare,
What scarcely seem materials, down and hair.’
It is striking how Clare is able to accommodate so natural a speaking voice within the verse form, as if metre and rhyme flow naturally through the words. Clare, though a countryman who earned his living on the land, was well-read. The iambic pentameter was as familiar to him as the Northamptonshire countryside. Like the Elizabethans, he thought in verse. Poetry is best when it is closely allied to the way we speak, which is itself closely allied to the way we think.
Edward Thomas is said to have found his voice as a poet when Robert Frost pointed out to him the poetic quality of his prose. He was already the author of several books, mainly biography and nature writing, and had a reputation as a prose stylist, when his friendship with Frost caused his writing to take a new direction. Between 1913, when he was thirty-five and had been writing professionally for sixteen years, and 1917, when he was killed, he wrote about a hundred and fifty poems. Many of them started life as passages of prose taken from his notebooks and lightly transformed into poetry. He ‘put his trust in rhythms of speech,’ Matthew Hollis tells us in his introduction to the Faber Selected Poems (2011), ‘at a time where this was not the received style,’ and quotes Thomas himself as saying, ‘Only when a word has become necessary to him can a man use it safely, if he try to impress words by force on a sudden occasion, they will either perish by his violence or betray him.’ This was a principle he had learned to apply in his prose and then sought to apply in his poetry. Usually he succeeded, but not always. His poetry sometimes reads as if it is trying to escape from the form it’s written in. The intensity of his thought was not so easily tamed as Frost’s.
‘After night’s thunder far away had rolled
The fiery day had a kernel sweet of cold,
And in the perfect blue the clouds uncurled,
Like the first gods before they made the world
And misery, swimming the stormless sea
In beauty and in divine gaiety.’
The diction seems to belong to an earlier age. It reads almost like an eighteenth century translation of a Latin poem. The first line could be Dryden. Thomas asks more of his verse than he does of his prose. Frost ambles comfortably through his lines, but Thomas is more urgent. He wants each word to count. The basic unit in Frost’s poems is the sentence, in Thomas’s it’s the word. I can’t help thinking that Thomas, the prose stylist, had an idea in his head of the perfect poem as something small and dense, something that looks light until you pick it up, like Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience or something by Marvell. Robert Frost could not have written Cock-Crow.
‘Out of the wood of thoughts that grows by night
To be cut down by the sharp axe of light, –
Out of the night, two cocks together crow,
Cleaving the darkness with a silver blow:
And bright before my eyes twin trumpeters stand,
Heralds of splendour, one at either hand,
Each facing each as in a coat of arms:
The milkers lace their boots up at the farms.’
Adelstrop, which is perhaps the closest he came to his ideal, owes more to Robert Browning than to Robert Frost. Its four verses, each of four lines, with their simple rhyme scheme and their easy-going, absent-minded rhythm, remind me of Browning’s Memorabilia (a title which would have suited Adelstrop just as well).
‘Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,
And did he stop and speak to you
And did you speak to him again?
How strange it seems and new!
But you were living before that,
And also you are living after;
And the memory I started at –
My starting moves your laughter.
I crossed a moor, with a name of its own
And a certain use in the world no doubt,
Yet a hand’s-breadth of it shines alone
’Mid the blank miles round about:
For there I picked up on the heather
And there I put inside my breast
A moulted feather, an eagle-feather!
Well, I forget the rest.’
In a very long review of a book about Philip Roth in the London Review of Books (vol. 36, no. 2, 23 January 2014) Adam Mars-Jones writes, ‘Art is always a one-way sharing: I can be privy to Dante’s mind but he is impervious to mine.’ Leaving aside the question of what Dante has to do with Philip Roth, this seems to me to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what art is and what it seeks to do. The Divine Comedy is not the subject of a conversation between Dante and Adam Mars-Jones. The point of reading it is not to get to know Dante, as if he were someone you had just met at a party. The Divine Comedy, once written, exists independently of its writer. So do Philip Roth’s novels, however autobiographical their origin.
The title of my next essay, due on 5 February, is Modern theatre’s debt to Ben Jonson.
The next entry in my Reader’s Diary will be published on 12 February.
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