Until recently, like most people, all I knew of Longfellow was Hiawatha. I knew the tune anyway. A conversation with a friend who admitted to a liking for the now unfashionable poet convinced me that it was time to fill another gap in my reading. After all, there was on my bookshelves a rather handsome edition of his poems, inscribed ‘To Rowland [my father] from Dorothy [my mother] with wishes for a Happy Christmas and a very Happy New Year, Dec 1936’, unopened since I inherited it.

I turned, not to The Song of Hiawatha, though I intend to read that soon, but to a poem called Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie, which caught my attention because of its long lines that read more like prose than verse. ‘This is the forest primeval,’ it begins. ‘The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, bearded with moss and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight, stand like Druids…’ But to demonstrate the poetic-prosaic-verse-epic qualities of Longfellow’s long, irregular line, it will be better to quote some of them in full.

In the Acadian land, on the shores of the Basin of Minas,
Distant, secluded, still, the little village of Grand-Pré
Lay in the fruitful valley. Vast meadows stretched to the eastward,
Giving the village its name, and pasture to flocks without number.

Life had long been astir in the village, and clamorous labour
Knocked with its hundred hands at the golden gates of the morning.

Then as the wind seized the gleeds and the burning thatch, and, uplifting,
Whirled them aloft through the air, at once from a hundred housetops
Started the sheeted smoke with flashes of flame intermingled.

The musical quality of Longfellow’s line in this and other poems like it is immediately felt but hard to define. In the absence of metre and rhyme, the cumulative effect of stressed syllables is what gives the line rhythm and shape. To that is added the effect of alliteration, most obviously in the second pair of lines with its ‘hundred hands’ and ‘golden gates’ or the last three with their ‘hundred housetops’ and ‘flashes of flame’, but also in patterns of sound that are less obvious but no less effective: ‘vast meadows stretched to the eastward’, for example.

Evangeline is a long poem, though less than half the length of Hiawatha, one of several in which Longfellow turns history into legend. His narrative poems set out to chronicle America in the way that Virgil chronicled Rome, Holinshed England, Dante Florence. (Longfellow made his own translation of Dante.) In Evangeline, the burning of a village by the British, the villagers’ long journey west and, in particular, Evangeline’s lifelong search for Gabriel, to whom she is betrothed, become elements in a national epic.

Thus dwelt together in love these simple Acadian farmers, -
Dwelt in the love of God and of man. Alike were they free from
Fear, that reigns with the tyrant, and envy, the vice of republics.

Another poem that uses the same long line is The Courtship of Miles Standish, in its day one of Longfellow’s most famous poems. Historians, irritated perhaps by the success of a poem that purported to be historical but was mainly made up, considered it at best ‘a pleasant little fairy tale’. The tale is set in Plymouth, so named by the Plymouth Brethren who sailed from England on the Mayflower, and concerns the rivalry between two of them, Miles Standish and John Alden, for the hand of the beautiful Priscilla. As in Evangeline, Longfellow’s story has little to do with the particulars of history and everything to do with the universals of human nature, especially as they contribute to the values that underpin the founding of America and the creation of its national myth.

Longfellow makes frequent use, in this poem and others, of a poetic device that links his epic to Homer’s, the extended simile.

He spoke, and such a murmur rose, as on a lofty shore
The waves make when the south wind comes, and tumbles them before
Against a rock, grown near the strand, which diversely beset
Is never free, but here and there with varied uproars beat.

That was Homer in the Iliad, as translated by Chapman. This is Longfellow.

Anger was still in his heart, but at times the remorse and contrition
Which in all noble natures succeed the passionate outbreak,
Came like a rising tide, that encounters the rush of a river,
Staying its current awhile, but making it bitter and brackish.

Whether or not Longfellow’s imitation of Homer was part of a deliberate effort to give his poem an epic quality, he understood how the Homeric simile could be used to convey subtle and complex meanings. He does not go so far as to adopt the Homeric epithet, as in ‘rosy-fingered dawn’ or ‘wine dark sea’, but the epithets he uses are Homeric in all but their repetition. John Alden is ‘the fair-haired, taciturn stripling’ just once and once is enough to tell us all we need to know.

After these two narrative poems, I turned to The New England Tragedies, two verse dramas. Giles Corey of the Salem Farms reads like an early version of The Crucible. But Longfellow’s drama is the work of a poet, not a playwright, meant to be read, not acted, like Tennyson’s Becket or Byron’s Manfred. Written in short scenes, the story we know so well from Arthur Miller’s play is told simply and effectively. The scenes in which Mary Walcot feigns demonic possession in front of the investigating magistrate and minister are like sketches compared to Miller’s, but sketches that Miller must surely have known when he wrote his play.

Mary (starting up): Look there! Look there!
I see a little bird, a yellow bird,
Perched on her finger; and it pecks at me.
Ah, it will tear my eyes out!
Martha: I see nothing.
Hathorne: ’Tis the Familiar Spirit that attends her.
Mary: Now it has flown away. It sits up there
Upon the rafters. It is gone; is vanished.

In Miller’s play, more theatrically, the scene becomes a conversation between Abigail and a bird.

Abigail: Why do you come, yellow bird?
Proctor: Where’s a bird? I see no bird!
Abigail: My face? My face?
Proctor: Mr Hale –
Danforth: Be quiet!
Proctor: Do you see a bird?
Danforth: Be quiet!
Abigail. But God made my face; you cannot want to tear my face. Envy is a deadly sin, Mary.

There is even, in another verse drama, The Divine Tragedy, a passage that seems to prefigure lines by T.S.Eliot.

The things that have been and shall be no more,
The things that are, and that hereafter shall be
The things that might have been, and yet were not,
The fading twilight of great joys departed,
The daybreak of great truths as yet unrisen,
The intuition and the expectation
Of something, which, when come, is not the same…

It is impossible that a poet so widely read in his lifetime and for a generation or two after should not have left behind a legacy in the work of other writers. He was a poetic craftsman who wrote to be read, a poet and a story-teller, a public poet, a national poet. It is not just that Longfellow has gone out of fashion but that the idea of poetry as an expression of national feeling and of the poet as someone who gives a voice to other people, not just to himself, has lost the currency it once had. That may or may not be a good thing, but it is not a reason to neglect a poet whose work is full of surprises and, apart from anything else, a very good read.


The next post will be Once A Mariner, a poem set to music by Gwyneth Herbert.

That will be followed on 6 August by Beyond melancholy, a commentary on Webster’s ‘The White Devil’.

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A Reader’s Diary, 16 July 2014


Upon a semi-cirque of turf-clad ground,
The hidden nook discovered to our view
A mass of rock, resembling, as it lay
Right at the foot of that moist precipice,
A stranded ship, with keel upturned, that rests
Fearless of winds and waves.


The mound rose in the middle; a bare heap
Of finest sand, like that unverdured heap
Found at the bottom of an hour-glass run out.
At its head stood the cross of withered sticks;
The dry, peeled bark still fraying from it;
Its transverse limb tied up with rope, and
Forlornly adroop in the silent air.


Long lines of cliff breaking have left a chasm;
And in the chasm are foam and yellow sands;
Beyond, red roofs about a narrow wharf
In cluster; then a moulder’d church; and higher
A long street climbs to one tall-tower’d mill;
And high in heaven behind it a gray down
With Danish barrows; and a hazelwood,
By autumn nutters haunted, flourishes
Green in a cuplike hollow of the down.

Reading some short stories by Herman Melville and struck by something in his prose that seemed to give it a special resonance, I stopped and read again and realised that it was blank verse. Not the blank verse of Shakespeare, but of Melville’s contemporaries, the Romantic poets who wrote in verse about the things that Melville wrote about in prose. One of the three passages above is from Tennyson’s Enoch Arden, one from Wordsworth’s The Excursion and one is a passage from Melville’s short story, The Encantadas, divided into lines of verse, lines into which it falls quite naturally.

What this reveals is not only the inherent poetry in Melville’s prose, but something inherently prosaic in the iambic pentameter. It is a metre that imitates the natural speech rhythm of the English language and can be modulated up or down as the writer chooses. All three passages could have been set out in continuous prose, which is in fact how they should be read, the narrative line – the narrator’s voice – being as important in Wordsworth (1) and Tennyson (3) as they are in Melville (2).

Before I came to The Encantadas, I read Bartleby, a very different kind of story, one that, as others have observed, could have been written by Gogol, a first person narrative in which the narrator, ‘a rather elderly man’, a member of the legal profession, describes but is unable to explain the strange behaviour of one of his clerks or ‘scriveners’. It has also been compared to Conrad’s Secret Sharer and, although Bartleby is not a sea-faring story, Melville and Conrad both spent time at sea and drew on that experience in their later careers as writers. The Encantadas is made up of ten ‘sketches’, each of which is essentially a seaman’s yarn recounting his own experiences and stories that other seamen tell about the ‘Enchanted Isles’, otherwise known as the Galapagos Islands.

Bartleby is a kind of yarn too and, although the narrative style is very different (no hint of blank verse, just plain prose), there is something in the character of Bartleby, his single-mindedness, his solitariness, his impassiveness, which Melville brings out too in his description of the three Galapagos Island tortoises that are caught and left on deck in Sketch Second – Two Sides to a Tortoise.

As I lay in my hammock that night, overhead I heard the slow weary draggings of the three ponderous strangers along the encumbered deck. Their stupidity or their resolution was so great, that they never went aside for any impediment. One ceased his movements altogether just before the mid-watch. At sunrise I found him butted like a battering-ram against the immovable foot of the foremast, and still striving, tooth and nail, to force the impossible passage.

The alliteration in the last sentence is striking but, that aside, what we should notice is Melville’s obsession with obsession. Whether it’s Captain Ahab, Bartleby, Claggart or a tortoise, what Melville sees but can never explain other than as a fact of life, the fate to which our own nature condemns us, is blind obsession. The rest of his description of the tortoise’s futile struggle against an immovable obstacle makes it plain that he is not really writing about tortoises but about humanity.

That these tortoises are the victims of a penal, or malignant, or perhaps a downright diabolical enchanter, seems in nothing more likely than in that strange infatuation of hopeless toil which so often possesses them. I have known them in their journeyings ram themselves heroically against rocks, and long abide there, nudging, wriggling, wedging, in order to displace them, and so hold on their inflexible path. Their crowning curse is their drudging impulse to straight-forwardness in a belittered world.

Melville’s prose is never far from poetry, whether it’s blank verse, alliteration or just phrases like ‘that strange infatuation of hopeless toil’. In their stupidity and their resolution there is nothing much to choose between a tortoise and a man.

galapagos tortoise 1

The next post, on 23 July, will be about Longfellow.

That will be followed on 30 July by another Reader’s Diary.

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There was no word for empathy until a little over a hundred years ago, when some psychiatrists, wondering whether there might be such a thing, invented a name for it. The psychiatrists wanted to find out whether it was possible for one human being to identify so closely with another as to be able to experience life from someone else’s point of view. Their assumption, I imagine, was that for most people, most of the time, sympathy was as far as it went. They just wanted, as scientists do, to understand why and, in order to do so, they needed a name for the hypothetical state of total identification that went beyond sympathy and became – what shall we call it? – empathy!

When you name something you bring it into existence. If there is a word for it, it must exist. Whatever conclusion the scientists reached, everyone else jumped to the conclusion that empathy was both desirable and possible.

It is, of course, an illusion and a rather dangerous one. Empathy is neither desirable nor possible. If it were possible, it might be desirable, but it is not possible and to desire an impossibility is foolish. Whenever I hear the word spoken, and these days you hear it a lot, I flinch at the self-deception its use implies. Nobody nowadays talks about sympathy, which is hard enough for most people to achieve in a world where just getting on with each other is an achievement in itself. Instead, they talk about empathy, which makes understanding another person sound a lot easier than it really is. It is sentimental, glib and unrealistic. Most of us don’t know ourselves very well, let alone anybody else.

Close identification with another person is what happens when we read a novel or watch a play. The illusion of empathy is made real in fiction. It is possible only because the person with whom we identify or sympathise is not real. Only in a work of fiction can we get right inside another person’s mind. In real life, there is no narrator to tell us what the other person is thinking and feeling. In real life, our experience is wholly subjective. The way we interpret our experience, the sense we make of other people’s lives as well as our own, is itself limited by that experience. Getting inside another person’s mind is a physical and logical impossibility.

Writers are the same as everyone else, except that they have the skill and the imagination to create a parallel world in which empathy is possible. The Antony of Antony and Cleopatra, the Thomas Cromwell of Wolf Hall, the Napoleon of War and Peace, are not the men of the same name who once lived. Nobody, least of all themselves, understood them as well in real life as they do in the stories that Shakespeare, Mantel and Tolstoy made up. They give ‘to airy nothing’, as Shakespeare put it, ‘a local habitation and a name’.

The airy nothings Theseus talks about in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are our fears and fancies –

Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

– but the phrase could as well be applied to our individual experience in general. Whatever we experience is an airy nothing until we give it a name. Once we have given it a name, we think we know what it is. But how can we be sure we are right? Most of the time, let’s face it, we fool ourselves into thinking we understand the world we live in and know the people we share it with better than we really do.

Misunderstandings are the common currency of human intercourse, as the psychiatrist R.D.Laing demonstrated in Knots. Here is one of the many knots of which the book, first published in 1970, is composed.

There must be something the matter with him
     because he would not be acting as he does
          unless there was
    therefore he is acting as he is
    because there is something the matter with him

He does not think there is anything the matter with him
    because one of the things that is
    the matter with him
    is that he does not think that there is anything
    the matter with him
    we have to help him realise that
    the fact that he does not think there is anything
   the matter with him
   is one of the things that is
   the matter with him.

Instead of talking about empathy as if it were possible we should accept the impossibility of understanding another person any better than we understand ourselves and go back to sympathy, not the sort that comes with tea, but the sort that depends on identifying with someone. In other words, starting with the premise that human beings have a lot in common and that, even if we can never claim fully to understand someone or see things through their eyes, because the way each of us sees things is determined by things that have happened to us and us alone, we can at least make the effort to see something of ourselves in them and something of them in us.

Outside fiction, none of us can do that with anything other than partial success. To pretend otherwise is to turn a blind eye to the fallibility of human nature and air-brush away the fears, fancies and failings that make humanity what it is. As an old Yorkshire farmer is reputed once to have said to the parson, “I love mankind, same as you do. It’s just folk I can’t stand.”

Or as Sartre put it, hell is other people.



The next post will be my Reader’s Diary for 16 July.

The following week, on 23 July, I will be writing about Longfellow.

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A Reader’s Diary, 2 July 2014

Under Milk Wood was a disappointment. I had been looking forward to seeing the production by Theatr Cymru when it came to Birmingham Rep. It was a full house. The set was simple and effective, a bit like a harbour wall on which the actors sat waiting their turn. The actors themselves were excellent. I spent the first half wondering why I was not enjoying it as much as I had expected to and as I still felt I should be. In the interval I realised what it was and didn’t go back.

There is no point in staging Under Milk Wood, a play for voices, unless seeing it as well as hearing it enhances the experience. What happened in this production, perhaps all that can happen in any production, is that the actors stood up to speak their lines, then sat down again. But the characters and the town of Llareggub were all in the words, where Dylan Thomas put them, not in the action or the gesture or the facial expression. There is nothing an actor can do to make the words more vivid other than to speak them well. The effect of anything else is likely to be the opposite, the physical appearance of an actor on stage acting as an obstacle to the imagination which, left to their own devices, Thomas’s words set free. So I thought about going back to my seat after the interval and closing my eyes, but decided instead to go home and listen to the recording of the original BBC radio production with Richard Burton as First Voice.

It is easier to put a stage play on the radio than to put a radio play on the stage. There are perhaps only two ways in which it can be done. One is to transform it into another medium altogether, ballet for example. Commission a score, as the Royal Ballet did this year for The Winter’s Tale, leave out the words and dance it. The other is to do it with puppets and voices off. Lorca’s puppet plays, more or less contemporary with Under Milk Wood, serve as a model. How well the two-dimensional characters in Thomas’s play would lend themselves to being portrayed as puppets! Imagine the scene in which Mr Pugh brings his wife’s tea up to the bedroom –

Here’s your arsenic dear.
And your weedkiller biscuit.
I’ve throttled your parakeet.
I’ve spat in the vases.
I’ve put cheese in the mouseholes.
Here’s your…       [Door creaks open]
             …nice tea, dear.

It’s Punch and Judy. Welsh commedia del arte. A puppet version of Under Milk Wood is something I would really like to see.

Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped At Eboli is a book I had been meaning to read for a long time but, when I read it, it turned out to be quite different from what I had been expecting. Once I had made the mental adjustment to deal with the fact that it has nothing to do with Christ and was in large part a book about Italian peasants, I enjoyed it. The title refers to a saying of the peasants in the village where in the 1930s Levi was sentenced to exile for his opposition to Mussolini. The peasants say of themselves, ‘We aren’t Christians. Christ didn’t get this far. He stopped at Eboli.’ Levi describes the remote part of southern Italy where he was confined as ‘that land without comfort or solace, where the peasant lives out his motionless civilisation on barren ground in remote poverty, and in the presence of death.’

Peasants play a bigger part in Italian literature, as they do also in Russian, than they do in English. They are different from the urban poor or even the agricultural poor that we meet in the novels of Charles Dickens and George Eliot, Willa Cather and John Steinbeck. Italian peasants, like those Giovanni Verga writes about in his Little Novels of Sicily, are described in Levi’s book as having ‘led exactly the same life since the beginning of time’. Polish peasants are portrayed in this way too by Ladislas Reymont in his quartet, Peasants, and by modern Polish writers such as Olga Tokarczuk in Primeval and Other Times. What Levi dwells on is not just the peasants’ sense of resignation, but also the expression it finds sometimes in violence.

This blind urge to destruction, this bloody and suicidal will to annihilation, has lurked for centuries beneath the patient endurance of daily toil. Every revolt on the part of the peasants springs out of an elementary desire for justice deep at the dark bottom of their hearts. Every now and then in some village or other, when the peasants have no representation in the government and no defence in the law, they rise up with death in their hearts, burn the town hall or the barracks of the carabinieri, kill the gentry, and then go off in silent resignation to prison.

Perhaps it was like that in Britain at the time of the Peasants’ Revolt, but not any longer. Our peasants now, if there are any left, are of the kind we read about in the poems of R.S.Thomas. We know the peasant, Iago Prytherch, well enough (‘There is something frightening in the vacancy of his mind’) and meet him again, or someone like him, in Peasant Greeting.

No speech; the raised hand affirms
All that is left unsaid
By the mute tongue and the unmoistened lips:
The land’s patience and a tree’s
Knotted endurance and
The heart’s doubt whether to curse or bless,
All packed into a single gesture.

The blind urge to destruction is missing (presumed dead) but everything else is there.

Painting by Carlo Levi

Painting by Carlo Levi

My next post, on 9 July, will be about Empathy.

My next Reader’s Diary will be posted on 16 July.

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America’s communist manifesto

America is too young to have had a golden age. Classical civilisation had its pastoral idyll. Hindus have their Ramraj, a time of peace and prosperity that lasted for ten thousand years. Every European country looks back to a time, half historical, half legendary, when a good king ruled and the people were happy. But four hundred years of American history is too short a time for a golden age to have come and gone. The American Dream is a dream of the future, not the past. A golden age, such as every civilisation in the old world had and the new world lacks, is a way of looking forward by looking back. America only looks forward.

The title the American writer, Edward Bellamy, gave to his best-selling Utopian novel, Looking Backward: 2000-1887, is in this respect misleading. The book was published in 1887 and looks backward only because the narrator falls asleep in that year and wakes up 113 years later in 2000. The book is set in an imagined future that bears no relation to the past, which at the time of writing was the present. The narrator is a wealthy young Bostonian. What he wakes up to is a Boston vastly different from and a vast improvement on the one he fell asleep in. Capitalism throughout America has been abandoned and communism has taken its place. The production and distribution of goods has been nationalised. America has done away with money and disbanded its armed forces. Instead, it has what the narrator calls an ‘industrial army’ into which every American citizen is conscripted at the age of twenty-one, working at whatever trade or profession they choose and show themselves adapted for, until they reach the age of forty-five, when they are discharged and enjoy a long and happy retirement.

The first book to sell a million copies in the USA was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the second Looking Backward. Written at a time of considerable social and industrial unrest, in America as in Europe, the book caught the mood of the times. The same was true of Thomas More’s Utopia which, in 1516, was both a powerful attack on the policy of enclosure and a description of an imaginary island in the new world where social relations were fair and equal. Bellamy, like More, devotes a good part of his book to the present. His narrator wakes one morning to find himself back in the Boston he fell asleep in. Wandering through the city, he is horrified by sights that he had previously taken for granted. He lies down in despair and wakes again from what turns out to have been a dream. Bellamy manages these time-shifts to great effect throughout the book.

In the best traditions of Plato’s Republic and More’s Utopia, Bellamy anticipates objections to his vision of an ideal state by explaining how it works in practice. His imagined future is sometimes uncannily prescient. His description of the megastores where people go, not to buy, but to choose the goods they want, which are then delivered to their homes, is Amazon without the internet. Nationalise Amazon? Why not? They don’t pay their taxes anyway, so we wouldn’t lose by it. Other accurate predictions include public broadcasting with a choice of channels and self-publishing. He remains however as open now as he was then to the charge of naivety in describing the ease with which America, sometime after he fell asleep, replaced a society predicated on the worst aspects of human nature (competition, self-interest) with one based on the best (co-operation, common interest). The change took place, he explains, not by revolution, but by evolution.

‘Early in the last century,’ the narrator’s host tells him, ‘the evolution was completed by the final consolidation of the entire capital of the nation. The industry and commerce of the country, ceasing to be conducted by a set of irresponsible corporations and syndicates of private persons at their caprice and for their profit, were intrusted to a single syndicate representing the people, to be conducted in the common interest for the common profit.’

Utopians are easy targets for mockery. It happens to Gonzalo in The Tempest when he is trying to cheer up the King of Naples after the shipwreck by telling him what he would do if he were king of the island, while the young lords make fun of him behind his back.

Gonzalo           No occupation; all men idle, all;
                           And women too, – but innocent and pure;
                           No sovereignty, -
Sebastian                                           Yet he would be king on’t.
Antonio         The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning.
Gonzalo        All things in common nature should produce
                         Without sweat or endeavour: treason, felony,
                         Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
                         Would I not have, but nature should bring forth,
                         Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
                        To feed my innocent people.
Sebastian    No marrying ’mong his subjects?
Antonio       None, man; all idle; whores and knaves.
Gonzalo       I would with such perfection govern, sir,
                       T’excel the golden age.

Modern directors sometimes connive at their mockery, making Gonzalo an easier target by portraying him as an old fool, ignoring Shakespeare’s own description of him in the Dramatis personae as ‘an honest old counsellor’.

Modern readers are more comfortable with dystopias than utopias. Modern writers too. Perhaps the last honest-to-goodness utopia was William Morris’s News From Nowhere, which was published just two years after Bellamy’s Looking Backward. Morris sets his novel in the future too, starting with a revolution that takes place in 1952, then taking us another hundred years into the future when his narrator, like Bellamy’s, wakes from a long sleep. The post-revolutionary England that he finds himself in, unlike Bellamy’s America, is a golden age of the traditional kind. William Morris turns the clock back instead of forward to a utopia which looks a bit like medieval England but which is really, as his title reminds us by its use of the literal meaning of Thomas More’s Greek neologism, nowhere.

In spite of its initial popularity, Bellamy’s novel does not seem to have had a lasting impact. But then what novel, utopian or otherwise, ever does? What a difference it would have made if Marx and Engels had written a novel instead of a manifesto.

looking backward 01

The next post will be my Reader’s Diary for 2 July 2014.

The week after that I will be writing about Empathy.

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A Reader’s Diary, 18 June 2014

Among the many contributions made by publishers to the commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the First World War is a small book by Edith Wharton called Fighting France, published by Hesperus Press, an independent publishing house specialising in neglected and out-of-print classics. The introduction by Colm Tóibín tells us that the French Red Cross had asked Wharton, a famous American writer living in Paris, to report on the needs of military hospitals near the front. She obliged with a series of articles that appeared first in an American magazine and then, in 1915, as a book.

Edith Wharton is a very good writer. The quality of her prose in this book is up to her usual high standard. The first paragraph, like many others, is an object lesson in good writing and worth quoting in full.

On 30th July, 1914, motoring north from Poitiers, we had lunched somewhere by the roadside under apple trees on the edge of a field. Other fields stretched away on our right and left to a border of woodland and a village steeple. All around was noonday quiet, and the sober disciplined landscape which the traveller’s memory is apt to evoke as distinctively French. Sometimes, even to accustomed eyes, these ruled-off fields and compact grey villages seem merely flat and tame; at other moments the sensitive imagination sees in every thrifty sod and even furrow the ceaseless vigilant attachment of generations faithful to the soil. The particular bit of landscape before us spoke in all its lines of that attachment. The air seemed full of the long murmur of human effort, the rhythm of oft-repeated tasks, the serenity of the scene smiled away the war rumours which had hung on us since morning.

Back in Paris, she captures the change of mood from day to day, week to week, month to month, as the war progresses. She had lived in Paris as a child, returned regularly throughout her life and now lived there, as celebrated for her novels in France as she was in America and in a way that she found more congenial. It is not surprising that her descriptions of Paris are among the most memorable passages in the book.

But there is another army in Paris. Its first detachments came months ago, in the dark September days – lamentable rearguard of the Allies’ retreat on Paris. Since then its numbers have grown and grown, its dingy streams have percolated through all the currents of Paris life, so that wherever one goes, in every quarter and at every hour, among the busy confident strongly stepping Parisians one sees these other people, dazed and slowly moving – men and women with sordid bundles on their backs, shuffling along hesitatingly in their tattered shoes, children dragging at their hands and tired-out babies pressed against their shoulders: the great army of the refugees.

But when she leaves Paris to travel to the front, or as close to it as it is safe to go, although the quality of her prose never falters, the voice seems less sure of itself. She is a tourist now, describing the sights that she sees on her way to the front.

Standing up in the car and looking back, we watched the river of war wind towards us. Cavalry, artillery, lancers, infantry, sappers and miners, trench-diggers, road-makers, stretcher-bearers, they swept on as smoothly as if in holiday order. Through the dust, the sun picked out the flash of lances and the gloss of chargers’ flanks, flushed rows of determined faces, found the least touch of gold on faded uniforms, silvered the sad grey of mitrailleuses and munition wagons. Close as the men were, they seemed allegorically splendid: as if, under the arch of the sunset, we had been watching the whole French army ride straight into glory…

Away from the Paris she knows, she is an outsider and does not try to pretend otherwise, but sets down her observations and reflections as honestly as she can. But the closer she gets to the front, the less there is for her to say, because what matters is out of sight and out of reach. Except once.

Over a break in the walls I saw another gutted farmhouse close by in another orchard: it was an enemy outpost and silent watchers in helmets of another shape sat there watching on the same high shelves. But all this was infinitely less real and terrible than the cannonade above the disputed village. The artillery had ceased and the air was full of summer murmurs. Close by on a sheltered ledge I saw a patch of vineyard with dewy cobwebs hanging to the vines. I could not understand where we were, or what it was all about, or why a shell from the enemy outpost did not suddenly annihilate us. And then, little by little, there came over me the sense of that mute reciprocal watching from trench to trench: the interlocked stare of innumerable pairs of eyes, stretching on, mile after mile, along the whole sleepless line from Dunkerque to Belfort.

It is a powerful image and perhaps explains why From Dunkerque to Belfort is the book’s subtitle. Travelling behind the front line from one end to the other, this is the closest she has come to war itself. What she sees ‘over a break in the walls’ is transformed into an image of war as ‘mute reciprocal watching’, an image of mutual suspicion that prevents speech and makes sleep impossible, of distrust from which there is no escape and of which there seems no end. But an image is only an image after all and the actuality remains out of reach.

Her frank admission that she does not understand what it was all about is a sign of her own self-awareness and one reason perhaps why there have been so few novels and only a few poems about war on the front line. One of the terrible things about war is the silence it imposes on those who are too close to it for comfort and those who cannot get close enough to understand.

edith wharton 01

The next post, on 25 June, will be about America’s communist manifesto.

The next Reader’s Diary will be published on 2 July.

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The ballet of the play of the book

Most people who saw the premiere of The Winter’s Tale at the Royal Ballet earlier this year would have known that it was based on a play by William Shakespeare, even if they did not know the play itself. But few I imagine would have known that Shakespeare’s play was based on a story by Robert Greene and even fewer would have read it.

Pandosto, The Triumph of Time was published in 1588. Shakespeare’s dramatisation came about twenty years later, long after Greene had written his last pamphlet, A Groats-worth of Wit, in which his description of ‘an upstart crow’ who ‘supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you’ is generally taken to refer to Shakespeare. A Cambridge man sneering at a grammar school boy. Perhaps it’s as well that, lacking the protection of copyright laws, he didn’t live to see the only Shake-scene in a country beautifying himself in the feathers of one of his own stories.

The Winter’s Tale is often singled out as being unusually faithfully to its source. But that is only if you ignore Romeo and Juliet, which follows very closely the events of the story of Giulietta e Romeo as told by Luigi da Porto (1486-1529), or the plays whose plots are lifted wholesale from Holinshed’s Chronicles and Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. Shakespeare’s skill was not in making up stories. His two great accomplishments were in the arts of blank verse (much to Greene’s chagrin) and dramatisation. He knew it seems by instinct how to replace the voice of the story-teller with the voices of his characters. Once under way, with the help of such scene-setting devices as a prologue (‘Two households, both alike in dignity…’) or a conversation between two characters (‘I thought the king had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall’), the story in effect tells itself.

In the four hundred years or so since Greene wrote his story and Shakespeare dramatised it, the dramatist’s art has gradually been incorporated into the art of fiction. A modern writer, sitting down to tell the story of Pandosto (or Leontes, as Shakespeare called him) would not begin as Greene did by telling us in general terms what the events of the story will tell us in more detail.

Among all the passions wherewith human minds are perplexed there is none that so galleth with restless despite as that infectious sore of jealousy, for all other griefs are either to be appeased with sensible persuasions, to be cured with wholesome counsel, to be relieved in want, or by tract of time to be worn out – jealousy only excepted, which is so sauced with suspicious doubts and pinching mistrust that whoso seeks by friendly counsel to raze out this hellish passion, it forthwith suspecteth that he giveth this advice to cover his own guiltiness.

Later writers would be more likely to take Shakespeare as their model than Greene (though Greene wrote very well in the conventions of his time and is worth reading) so that the reader, like the audience, can share in Leontes’ private thoughts.

                              There may be in the cup
A spider steept, and one may drink, depart,
And yet partake no venom; for his knowledge
Is not infected: but if one present
Th’abhorr’d ingredient to his eye, make known
How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides,
With violent hefts: – I have drunk, and seen the spider.

Modern novelists make as much use of soliloquy and dialogue as Shakespeare did. Choreographers, however, have to do without words. Christopher Wheeldon’s Winter’s Tale belongs in the tradition of classical narrative ballet. The story, first told by Greene, dramatised by Shakespeare, is re-told in the language of dance. If you know the play, you recognise the spider as a repeated motif in the balletic vocabulary of Leontes, but if you don’t it works just as well, conveying through movement and gesture what Greene describes in the first sentence of his story as ‘suspicious doubts and pinching mistrust’.

Turning Shakespeare’s play into a ballet seems more of a transformation than his own dramatisation of Greene’s story, but it is not. Shakespeare and Greene both used words to tell the story, but they did so in different ways, a difference as great as that between words and movement. The difference is as much in the way in which the work is experienced as in the way in which it was made. Reading a book, watching a play and watching a ballet are not different ways of doing the same thing. Intellectually, emotionally and physically, the nature of our engagement is unique to each. The opera Mascagni made of Verga’s short story, Cavalleria Rusticana, like the one Tchaikovsky made of Pushkin’s poem, Evgeny Onegin, or the settings George Butterworth, Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Ireland and others made of Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, have the same integrity as does the play Shakespeare made of the story by Greene.

A musical setting of a poem is not simply a poem set to music. It is, or should be, a transformation of one art form into another. The point is not somehow to enhance Housman’s words by singing them. If it’s the words you want, you can’t do better than read the poems. Comparing the music with the poems or the play with the story is to misunderstand what the composer, the poet, the dramatist and the story-teller were trying to do.

If there is an exception to this rule – and there always has to be an exception – it is the stage version of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. It was written by Owen and Donald Davis and was a great success on Broadway in the 1930s. ‘The best dramatisation of a novel I have ever seen in a theatre,’ wrote John Anderson in The New York Evening Journal. Edith Wharton herself wrote in a foreword to the published script that ‘few have had the luck to see the characters they had imagined in fiction transported to the stage without loss or alteration of any sort’. Though I have only read it, not seen it on stage, that was my reaction too.

One reason might be that, as I suggested earlier, novels had become more like plays, making the task of dramatising them easier. Another might be that, at the time when Edith Wharton was writing, the movies were beginning to shape the American imagination. The dramatisation of Ethan Frome happened, coincidentally or not, at the start of the age of the film of the book. In the hundred years between the Civil War and World War II America was like England in the hundred years between the Reformation and the Restoration. It was a period in both countries when the job of the writer was to shape the country’s language. What Elizabethan writers didn’t have was the movies. They had to make do with the play of the book. But it’s worth remembering that the play of the book is what nearly every Elizabethan play was.

winters tale ballet 01  ethan frome 01

The next post, on 18 June, will be my Reader’s Diary.

On 25 June I will be writing about America’s communist manifesto.

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