Wednesday, February 25, 2015

What’s needed, it seems, is the right verisimilitude - Alcott, Baudelaire, Austen, and Knausgaard - highlights from The Hudson Review

Now I am going to look at the highlights of the Winter 2015 issue of The Hudson Review, my favorite literary journal.

For a long time, The Hudson Review had nothing online, and then a few things, and now quite a bit.  But not everything, so I can only insist that poet David Slavitt’s peculiar idea to write fake choruses to lost Sophocles plays, based only on the titles of the plays, is promising; or that classics professor Bruce Heiden’s translation of Charles Baudelaire’s “Les Chats” is perfect.  I can give a hint of the latter, I guess:

Their haunches emanate unnatural fires;
And golden speckles, fine as desert sand,
Constellate the marble of their eyes.

And I bought the Slavitt book, so more of that later.  The poetry in this magazine is usually strong.

Even with more articles given away online, I never see anyone promote it.  The piece that should be circulating widely is Bruce Bawer’s review of the Karl Ove Knausgaard My Struggle novels, the best thing I have read on them.  Bawer has the advantage that he has 1) read all six books, 2) read them in Norwegian, and 3) read them in Norway.  The latter point especially:

Sometimes it can seem as if every second or third novel you pick up in an Oslo bookstore is about a man (a literary type, naturally) in late middle age who’s lived alone in some remote place since his divorce and who, one day in dark midwinter, is given a grim diagnosis by his doctor, after which he goes home to reflect on his life – his failed marriage, disappointing career, estranged children – and to contemplate stoically his impending death.   (588)

While jolly Knausgaard is seen by Norwegian readers to offer “a naïve, credulous, American-style enthusiasm about life.”  How can an American reader know that Knausgaard was writing a complex parody?  By the way, anyone who has commented on the oddity of the English translation – Bawer says you are right: “innumerable errors that are minor but whose cumulative effect is distracting” (594).

I have not read Knausgaard, so I only care because the review is so good.  Of more direct interest was a long piece on “Mind and Mindlessness in Jane Austen” by Wellesley English professor Timothy Peltason, a careful ethical argument that pushes well past Austen’s romantic plots towards the inner lives of her characters, including those with no inner lives, or “inner lives that are astonishingly unvaried and unimaginative, so much so that the narrator pauses frequently to wonder, and obliges us to wonder with her, what it can possibly be like to inhabit such a consciousness, or such a lack of consciousness” (611).  Lady Bertram from Mansfield Park or the awful Elliots from Persuasion are examples.  “[T]he comic horrors of inward vacancy,” Peltason calls the theme.

The larger point is to contrast the mindless characters with the mindful, the heroines and their successful suitors.  The marriage plot is not just about the search for love, but the search for morally intelligent life in the universe.  Austen fans should seek out the magazine for this one.

Alexandra Mullen’s review of the latest Library of America collection of Louisa May Alcott novels is also excellent, and luckily it is online.  If Work or Rose in Bloom are not first-rate works of art, they are still of high interest, moralistic, improving fiction with artistic ambition and real humor.

One of her sons makes the argument [for Horatio Alger novels!] from verisimilitude: “A bootblack mustn’t use good grammar, and a newsboy must swear a little, or he wouldn’t be natural.”  His mother replies: “But my sons are neither bootblacks nor newsboys, and I object to heating them use such words as ‘screamer,’ ‘bully,’ and ‘buster.’”  Genteel fictions meet with her disapproval when both the virtue and rewards lack verisimilitude – when boys run away to sea and behave so nobly that Admiral Farragut invites them to dinner.  What’s needed, it seems, is the right verisimilitude…  (680)

And even I agree with the aunt on that.  Mullen’s and Peltason’s  essays are model for something I never do but maybe should, working through the ethical argument in good fiction with clarity and force.

For The Hudson Review, routine stuff.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada with Clarence King - He has n’t what old Ruskin calls for

Clarence King, Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (1872).  What we have here is a series of informal, amusing and instructive articles written for popular magazines by a major American geologist.  The articles are about a scientific expedition in the mountains of California, mostly, during the 1860s of which King was a member.  King would soon after help create and serve as the first director of the United State Geological Survey.

King gives the strong impression that he is a geologist because it gives him a professional excuse to climb mountains.  The ascents of Mount Whitney, Mount Tyndall, and Mount Shasta are described in some detail, and there is a great deal of trooping around Yosemite Valley.  Fine adventuring in a spectacular landscape.

Under the later moonlight I rose and went out upon the open rocks, allowing myself to be deeply impressed by the weird Dantesque surroundings; - darkness, out of which to the sky towered stern, shaggy bodies of rock; snow, uncertainly moonlit with cold pallor; and at my feet the basin of the lake, still, black, and gemmed with reflected stars, like the void into which Dante looked through the bottomless gulf of Dis.  (Ch. IV, “The Descent of Mount Tyndall,” 92)

Then follows a short critique of the illustrations of Gustave Doré (“a conspicuous failure from an overbalancing love of solid, impenetrable darkness”) which I found odd, but King is a highly aestheticized naturalist, a follower, it is clear enough, of John Ruskin, introduced by name when a landscape painter appears in one of the book’s comic sketches:

“It’s all Bierstadt and Bierstadt and Bierstadt nowadays!  What has he done but twist and skew and distort and discolor and belittle and be-pretty this whole doggonned country?  Why, his mountains are too high and too slim; they’d blow over in one of our fall winds…  He has n’t what old Ruskin calls for.”  (Ch. X, “Cut-off Copple’s,” 210)

The comic intervals were not such a surprise after finding them in Murray’s contemporary book about camping in the Adirondacks.  I will present the punchline of Ch. V, “The Newtys of Pike,” which does a good job of showing off King’s is essentially one long joke:

He added, “Thet – thet – thet man what gits Susan has half the hogs!” (110)

Do you want to read up to that punchline or not?  Up to you.  I laughed, but that ain’t proof a’nothin’.

I read the Bison Books edition of Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada.  Its introduction by James Shebl includes a number of testimonials: “’along with Roughing It the high-water mark of frontier literature’” (Wallace Stegner), “as fine as The Oregon Trail or Before the Mast” (Van Wyck Brooks), and “’one of the obligatory books for readers who wish to know their country’” (Henry Seidel Canby).  Heaven save me from such overheated blurbage.  “Obligatory,” what twaddle.  And Brooks is nuts, too – Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years before the Mast is far richer.  Stegner is all right.  Funny that Roughing It, a book about a different kind of mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, one that King holds in contempt, is also from 1872.

I am perhaps making King’s book sound ridiculous, but I am just taking the terrific nature writing and wilderness adventures for granted.  The descriptions of Yosemite Falls during the first fall blizzard, for example, a storm that nearly killed King but also rewarded him:

At one time a gust rushed upon the lip of the fall with such violence as to dam back all its waters.  We could see its white pile at the lip mounting higher and higher, still held back by the wind, until there must have been a front of from a hundred and fifty to two hundred feet of boiling white water.  For a whole minute not a drop poured down the wall; but gathering strength, the torrent overcame the wind, rushed out with tremendous violence, leaped one hundred and fifty feet straight out into air, and fell clear to the rocks below…  (Ch. VIII, “A Sierra Storm,” 168)

Even today, I doubt many people have seen this in person.  It’s a good book.

Monday, February 23, 2015

dirty crockadillapigs and three other ways of walking, each with a difference of one letter - Fāris al-Shidyāq's Leg over Leg, or the novelist as lexicographer

Some readers may remember – why they would, I do not know, but we live in an age of miracles – that a few months ago I jotted down some notes about the first volume (of four) of an Arabic novel written in 1855, Leg over Leg or The Turtle in the Tree concerning The Fāriyāq What Manner of Creature Might He Be by Fāris al-Shidyāq, “a Lebanese Maronite of great learning and greater smartassery.”  I am quoting myself, since I cannot improve on that.

I recommend going back to that post for its many links to excerpts, reviews, and an instructive interview with the translator, to use the inadequate ordinary designation, Humphrey Davies.

I have now read the second volume of the novel, which is a lot like the first, only moreso.  The protagonist leaves Lebanon for Egypt and Malta, allowing opportunities for extended mockery of Egyptians and “Franks” but even more for the deployment and elaboration of long lists of words, words with their definitions, words that are inventions, words that rhyme, words in lists.

(Note: women who are dirty crockadillapigs, shorties, runts, trolls, long-necked pinheads, midgets, wide-wooed woofers, waddlers, bitty-butted beasts, scrawnies, and spindle-legs are more coquettish than any of the above.) (207)

Leg over Leg is published with the Arabic, so here I could look longingly at the original wondering what on earth was actually in it.  The “above” including many dictionary-like pages of Arabic words describing kinds of women:

or a zahrā’,                         “a woman of radiant face”
or a masbūrah,                  a female “of comely form”

I mean, pages and pages like this, meaning that in places the 200 page book zipped right by as I gave the lists of definitions the concentration I could – very little, except when the lists turned to food (dalik, “a dish made of butter and milk, or of butter and dates, or a plant to which red rose hips may be admixed, in which case it becomes as sweet as moist fresh dates,” 265).  Otherwise, the clothes, perfumes, woods, fish, utensils, gems (“Chinese beads from Yemen,” “a kind of carnelian,” “a kind of seashell”) will have to wait for a student of Arabic.

All of this is part of what is strictly speaking a single sentence that is thirty pages long.  Someone should do an Arabic wordcount and add it to the appropriate “world’s longest” lists.

Early in the book I realized that what Davies was often doing was not so much translating as describing the Arabic text.  For example, at one point a couple of pages are given to a paragraph about how a woman moves, a list of verbs: “her staggering and swaying, her tottering and strutting, her bending and bowing.”  Davies is capturing the alliteration; who knows or cares exactly what substitutions he has made.  The verbs become more complicated:

here skelping and her stepping quick, her tripping quickly along with short steps and three other ways of walking, each with a difference of one letter, and her walking nicely, her limping and a fourth way of walking with yet another letter changed (43)

And, yes, there in the Arabic I can see what he means, word after word with one letter changed, all of which, Davies insists, are treated as exact synonyms in every dictionary, and whose fault is it that the Arabic vocabulary overwhelms and exhausts the English?

There is no novel in English like Leg over Leg.  Arabic! 1855!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Leopardi's philosophy - the species, the races, the kingdoms, the spheres, the systems, the universes

I have read two translations of Giacomo Leopardi’s Canti.  Besides the poems they are both packed with scraps of Leopardi’s prose.  Leopardi essays and fragments and satirical dialogues (the Operette Morali or Moral Essays) have been translated and packaged in a number of books, and I recommend them to readers allergic to poetry.  I certainly recommend spending some time with his published prose before jumping into the 2,600 page Zibaldone.

Jonathan Galassi’s translation puts the prose in the usual place, in the endnotes, matching excerpts from Leopardi with excerpts from Italian experts.  The J. G. Nichols translation moves the prose right next to the poems.  Each poem is followed by a paragraph or even an entire essay, making the book an unusual verse-prose hybrid.

The “Night Song of a Wandering Shepherd in Asia,” a poem about the indifference of the moon and all things to man’s happiness, is accompanied by the complete “Dialogue between Nature and an Icelander” from the Moral Essays.   An angry Icelander has tracked the personification of Nature across the globe, finally cornering her in the “interior of Africa.” He makes his complaint:

I reach the conclusion that you are the declared enemy of mankind, and of other animals, and of all your works: you lie in wait for us, you threaten us, you assault us, you sting us, you strike us, you tear us in pieces, you are always either injuring or persecuting us.  By custom and by edict you are butcher of your own family, your children, your own flesh and blood.  (Nichols, p. 101)

Nature maintains her indifference – “even if I happened to exterminate your whole race, I would not be aware of it” – and goes even farther – “the world itself would be harmed if anything in it were free from suffering” (102).  The Icelander rejects all of this as specious nonsense but is then, unfortunately, at that point either eaten by lions or buried in a sandstorm, mummified, and eventually placed in a European museum, something close to a happy ending.

The closest equivalent in English to these dialogues are the Imaginary Conversations of Walter Savage Landor, and who reads those now?

These two translators, and the critics Galassi quotes, treat Leopardi less as a poet than as a philosopher, so making the ideational content of the poems clear is more important than prettying up the poetry. 

My philosophy makes Nature guilty of everything and, exculpating men completely, directs the hatred, or at least the complaint, to a higher cause, to the true origin of the ills of living creatures.  (Zibaldone 4428, Nichols p. 149)

Whether this is actually a philosophy or a temperament, a stance – I take these as distinct categories, perhaps wrongly – the books of Leopardi’s I have read, and I mean here the apparatus, the background and notes and so on, always treat the ideas as the center of Leopardi’s art. 

Not the individuals only, but the human race was and always will be inevitably unhappy.  Not the human race only, but all animals.  Not the animals only, but all other beings in their own way.  Not just the individuals, but the species, the races, the kingdoms, the spheres, the systems, the universes.  (Zibaldone 4175, Nichols p. 149)

No, the claim that plants and slime molds and asteroids are unhappy, this is not philosophy.  This is literature, brilliant, high-level literature, which if why I find happiness returning to Leopardi, regardless of what I understand.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

therefore there never is any moment of true pleasure - Leopardi relieves boredom

In the two poems following “Night Song of a Wandering Asian Shepherd,” Giacomo Leopardi describes the remedy for boredom.  A violent storm has passed by, and the village returns to life.

    Every heart is happy.
When is life as sweet,
as much enjoyed as now?  (ll.  25-27)

The argument darkens, though:

Pleasure, child of suffering,
empty joy, effect
of dread that’s past
which made the man who hated life
tremble with fear of death,
which turned the people
cold and mute and pale
and made them sweat and shiver in long torment
seeing lightning, clouds, and wind
arrayed against us.  (ll.  32-41)

In other words, we only enjoy life in the lee of the threat of suffering and death. “Surcease form suffering is happiness for us” (ll. 45-6).

The next poem, “Saturday in the Village,” reverses the conceit, identifying the hours before the holiday as happier than Sunday itself.  So we are happiest when relieved of suffering or in anticipation of pleasure.  The pleasure itself will likely disappoint.  Everything else is “sadness and boredom (tristezza e noia)” (l. 41).

Obviously there is a lot of psychological insight here, even for a reader of a quite different temperament – me, I mean.  Thank goodness we have so much trouble sitting alone in a room.  Our restlessness helps create the contrasts that bring pleasure, regardless of the actual results.  The contrast is what matters.

… pleasure is always either past or present… therefore there never is any moment of true pleasure, although it may seem that there is.  (Zibaldone 3550)

That last bit was J. G. Nichols.  Otherwise I am using Galassi.

One of Leopardi’s favorite concepts is vagueness or indefiniteness, vago, which has been an obstacle for me and will be for anyone whose aesthetic calls for precision.  The two poems I have mentioned here have stuck with me a little more not because of their philosophizing but because of their concreteness. 

    The young girl comes in from the country
as the sun is setting, carrying
her sheaf of grass, and in her hand
she holds a bunch of violets and roses
that, as always, she intends to use
to decorate her breast and hair
tomorrow, on the holiday.  (“Saturday in the Village,” ll. 1-7)

Even in English – the Italian verse is much prettier – Leopardi quickly evokes the scene, even though no individual detail is out of the ordinary.  An old woman tells stories, the sun sets, the church bell rings, children run around, and a carpenter works late.  Not much more than that.

I am tempted to write a bit about the longer poem “Broom, or the Flower of the Wilderness” because it is the thickest in physical observation, as Leopardi wanders Pompeii and its surroundings, looking at the flowers and thinking of – well, what else does anyone think of there – the destruction of all things in an apocalyptic disaster.

Nature has no more esteem
or care for the seed of man
than for the ant.  (ll. 231-3)

but if I spend too much time rooting around for the little nuggets that I usually look for, I miss the kind of poet Leopardi is.  So I will set that idea aside and write one more post where I try to look at him the way so many other writers look at him, as a philosophical poet, a poet of ideas.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Aren't you bored? - Leopardi's "Night Song of a Wandering Shepherd in Asia"

Giacomo Leopardi is among literature’s greatest pessimists.  I will enjoy his pessimism in the form of the “Night Song of a Wandering Shepherd in Asia” (1831), a lament in 143 lines, the most song-like of the Canti.

What are you doing, moon, up in the sky;
what are you doing, tell me, silent moon?
You rise at night and go,
observing the deserts.  Then you set.  (ll. 1-4)

An Asian shepherd, maybe Kirghiz suggests a note, complains to the moon about his lot and the lot of mankind.  Maybe the moon will sympathize with him.  No one else does. 

Aren’t you tired
of plying the eternal byways?
Aren’t you bored?  (ll. 5-7)

A reader might think – I sure did – that these lines are a little bit on the plain side.  I have read two versions, the recent Jonathan Galassi and the older J. G. Nichols (The Canti, Carcanet, 1994), and even my ignorant comparison to the Italian shows that the translators exaggerate Leopardi’s plainness.  Still, “Night Song” is kind of plain.

If life is misery,
why do we endure it?
This, unblemished moon,
is mortal nature.
But you’re not mortal,
and what I say may matter little to you.  (ll. 55-60)

Se la vita è ventura,
Perchè da noi si dura?
Intatta luna, tale
È lo stato mortale.
Ma tu mortal non sei,
E forse del mio dir poco ti cale.

Someone who knows Italian can correct me, but this does not seem too elaborate, although the music of some of the lines, the last for example, is undeniable.  The rhyme scheme is arbitrary, with Leopardi rhyming where and if he likes.  The one exception is that at the end of each stanza, as in the lines above, there is a significant rhyme using -ale.  These lines even have a bonus: “such,” “mortal,” “you don’t care” (calére, to care for: “This verb is rarely used.”)  “Life for me is wrong (male)” (l. 104) or

Tell me why it is
all animals are happy
resting, at ease, while I, if I lie down,
am plagued with tedium?  (ll. 129-32, animale / assale – Galassi scrambled this one)

The shepherd is envious of his sheep (he is addressing his sheep now, not the moon). 

I sit on the grass, too in the shade,
but an anxiousness invades my mind
as if a thorn were pricking me,
so that sitting there I’m even further
from finding peace or resting place.  (ll. 117-21)

Here we have a great Leopardian theme, shared with Pascal and the author of Ecclesiastes, the central problem of boredom, which Leopardi sees as both a curse and “the chief sign of the grandeur and nobility of human nature” (Pensieri LXVIII, tr. W. S. Di Piero).  The shepherd works through a series of ills – pain, death, meaninglessness, not just of his own life, but of everything (“any purpose, any usefulness / I cannot see,” ll. 97-8).  He cannot decide how he would be happier, as the moon or as a sheep.  Anything but what he is.  “[T]he day we’re born is cause for mourning” (l. 143).

Poor, miserable shepherd; poor Giacomo Leopardi.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

I’ll fight alone, I’ll fall alone - Giacomo Leopardi inspires Daniel Deronda

A poem of Giacomo Leopardi made a surprising appearance in Daniel Deronda (1876).  I mean I was surprised.  The beautiful Jewish singer Mirah is shown, to the extent a novel can show such a thing, as performing a single song, a setting of Leopardi’s 1818 “To Italy” (“All’Italia”), his first published poem.  He was twenty at the time and had mostly written and published, as teens do, works of Greek philology.

In chapter 39, Mirah runs through a fictional music setting – if that means anything – we can’t hear it regardless – of “some words” of Leopardi’s poem:

O patria mia, vedo le mura e gli archi
        E le colonne e i simulacri e l’erme
        Torri degli avi nostri
        Ma la gloria non vedo

Or in Jonathan Galassi’s translation (Canti, 2010, p., 3) – Eliot of course just has the untranslated Italian:

   O my country, I can see the walls
and arches and the columns and the statues
and lonely towers of our ancestors,
But I don’t see the glory;

The title of the poems tells us that Leopardi is writing about Rome and Italy, but Eliot appropriates the lines to invoke the Jews exile from their homeland.  The lyrics link to a later episode about a painting set in the ruins of Jerusalem.

Deronda later hears Mirah perform the song at a concert:

He knew well Leopardi's fine Ode to Italy (when Italy sat like a disconsolate mother in chains, hiding her face on her knees and weeping), and the few selected words were filled for him with the grandeur of the whole, which seemed to breathe an inspiration through the music…  Certain words not included in the song nevertheless rang within Deronda as harmonies from the invisible –

            ‘Non ti difende
  Nessun de’ tuoi?  L'armi, qua l'armi: io solo
  Combatterò, procomberò sol io’ –

they seemed the very voice of that heroic passion which is falsely said to devote itself in vain when it achieves the god-like end of manifesting unselfish love.   (Ch. 45, boldface mine)

I don’t know anything about Leopardi’s reception in English, but I found this scenes curious.  Deronda already knows the poems so well that hearing it evokes lines that are not in the song!

        None of your own defend you?
To arms!  Bring me my sword:
I’ll fight alone, I’ll fall alone.   (ll.36-38, Galassi again)

The removal of the Italian context is slyly done here, as Deronda unconsciously (at this point) shifts “you” from Italy to Mirah and her people.   To Deronda, the song creates “the vivid image of a man dying helplessly away from the possibility of battle.”  At the end of the novel, he will have launched himself into battle, no longer alone.

Leopardi makes a strange move in his ode (which is five pages long, thus the “few selected words” in the song) – he shifts the action and point of view to the Spartans at Thermopylae.  What first looks like a patriotic poem in the tradition of Alfieri (tyrants are overthrown) and Foscolo (tombs are embraced) becomes more strangely personal, with Leopardi imagining himself as a soldier in the service of antiquity.  Italian patriotism is, as with Foscolo, cultural and literary. 

If only I were down below with you,
and this sweet earth were wet with my blood, too.
But if my fate is unlike yours,
and will not let me shut my eyes
dying fallen on the field of Greece,
still may the modest glory of your bard,
if the gods allow it,
endure as long as yours
in times to come.  (ll. 132-140)

I’ll spend a couple more days seeing how the bard did.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Alas, and is not mine a language dead? - Coventry Patmore, prophet who can sing

I have to write up Coventry Patmore now or I will forget what I meant to say.  He will be hard to remember.

Patmore is a dying poet.  Checking the MLA International Bibliography I find an article a year for the past fifteen years, the last gasps before death.  About half of the references are to The Angel in the House (1854-63), the once-popular domestic epic that through Virginia Woolf has given its name to a certain conception of the Victorian ideal of femininity.  Patmore can stay alive a while longer as a punching bag for feminists, but when they tire of him, that’ll be it.

I have never read more than a few lines from The Angel in the House.  It gives off a strong whiff of kitsch.  This excerpt is not bad.  The next generation of poets preferred a later work, the forty-three odes collected as The Unknown Eros (1877), so I read that.  At first, I was a little worried, although I enjoyed Patmore’s ragged music:

from Wind and Wave

The wedded light and heat,
Winnowing the witless space,
Without a let,
What are they till they beat
Against the sleepy sod, and there beget
Perchance the violet!

Nature, gooey love poems, religious poems, an adorable poem in which the poet strikes his child and feels bad about it (“The Toys”), and, incongruently, some angry political poems, or religious poems that are actually political. I finally began to catch on to what Patmore was doing at the 18th ode, “The Two Deserts”:

View’d close, the Moon’s fair ball
Is of ill objects worst,
A corpse in Night’s highway, naked, fire-scarr’d, accurst;
And now they tell
That the Sun is plainly seen to boil and burst
Too horribly for hell.

The poem is anti-astronomy.  Patmore, the representative Victorian, is actually a raving lunatic, criticizing the moon.  In reality, aside from his Catholicism, he probably was pretty conventional, but merely sounds like a lost prophet due to the intensifying nature of the ode.

from ‘Sing Us One of the Songs of Sion’

How sing the Lord’s Song in so strange a Land?
A torrid waste of water-mocking sand;
Oases of wild grapes;
A dull, malodorous fog
O’er a once Sacred River’s wandering strand,
Its ancient tillage all gone back to bog;
A busy synod of blest cats and apes
Exposing the poor trick of earth and star
With worshipp’d snouts oracular…

There he goes after astronomy again.  This is, I remind myself, an attack by a Catholic on England and Anglicans who will respond to Patmore with “jeers / Or howls, such as sweet music draws from dog.”  Better to be, Patmore says sarcastically, one of the “Prophets Who Cannot Sing”:

Therefore no longer let us stretch our throats
Till hoarse as frogs
With straining after notes
Which but to touch would burst an organ-pipe.
Far better be dumb dogs.

And then this is followed by a sweet if odd poem, “The Child’s Purchase,” that begins with a child returning his allowance to his mother in exchange for a kiss and ends with what I take to be another song to his deceased ex-wife, the subject of The Angel of the House, who has become in death a kind of Beatrice figure, merged with the Virgin Mary but somehow distinct enough to make it unclear from whom the poet is asking for intercession.

I hope to read this book again someday.  I can see why Patmore had some champions.  I can see why there are not many left.

The title is the last line of The Unknown Eros, not so very far out of context.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

While the sun continues shining over human grief - Ugo Foscolo's "Of Tombs"

In 1806, Ugo Foscolo was in exile in London, his dream of Italian unity enacted not by Italians but by the conquests of Napoleon.  The writers who had been alive at the time of The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis, Alfieri and Parini, were both dead.  In retrospect, Foscolo was the greatest living Italian writer, although I do think that is how he felt about it.  He wrote a poem, “Dei Sepolcri,” “Of Tombs,” memorializing the great Italian writers, in fact memorializing memorials.

A recent Napoleonic edict had moved burials outside of cities (sensible) and required uniform plain grave markers (totalitarian).  The former does not bother Foscolo; the latter he sees as an attack on his culture.  In Jacopo Ortis, the title character practically identified the tombs of the great writers as synonymous with Italian culture.  “Of Tombs” develops the idea without Ortis’s histrionics.

On the one hand, who cares:

Oblivion draws all things into its night;
A force that never tires wears all things out,
Never at rest; and man and tombs of men,
The final shape of things, and the remains
Of land and sea are all transformed by time.

But Foscolo argues for the importance of tombs at a human scale.  A good anthropologist, he identifies tombs as an advance of civilization, part of the invention of “marriage, laws, and altars” that “[g]ave to the human animal respect.”  Tombs served as

… the cult which, through the rites may vary,
The love of fatherland and family
Transmitted through the long succeeding years.

Jacopo Ortis spent part of his novel visiting the monuments of Dante, Petrarch, and others.  Foscolo revisits them all in the poem, adding Alfieri and the English example of Admiral Nelson, a tribute to his ally and host. 

The urns of strong men stimulate strong minds
To deeds of great distinction; and these urns
Make sacred for the traveller that earth
Which holds them.

To what degree the tombs of the writers are meant to stand in for the works of the writers, and thus to what degree the poem is meant literally, remains a puzzle to me.

The last movement of the poems travels back to Classical Greece, to the Trojan War and the birth of poetry, or at least the poetry we still possess.  It ends with the vision of Homer visiting the Trojan tombs and receiving the inspiration to write his works – but this is not the historic Homer but a future Homer who will

… feel his way
Into the burial place, and clasp the urns
And question them.

This is the Homer who is inspired by our monuments to write the epic of Foscolo’s, and our, lost civilization.  Foscolo’s apocalyptic vision is more cyclical than progressive.

And you, Hector, will have your meed of mourning
Wherever men hold holy and lament
The blood shed for the homeland, while the sun
Continues shining over human grief.

I’ve used the J. G. Nichols translation published in The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis.  Several other translations exist.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

He said, rather spitefully, that he did not sell Italian books - Foscolo's apocalyptic literary Italy

Foscolo’s great innovation was to politicize Goethe’s novel, to use the structure of The Sorrows of Young Werther to write a novel about a young man’s desire for a united Italy, free of outside control.  Admittedly I found some of Jacopo Ortis’s rhetoric on the subject to be tiresome.  I am curious how contemporary Italians find it.  Even though Italy has been united for 150 years now, the subject has never gone away.  But I do not read Italian literature for the politics.

Yet Foscolo insists I am wrong.  The argument that runs through Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis is that Italy is literature, that a united Italy already exists in literature and somehow needs to be immanentized.  Over the course of the novel, Ortis visits numerous tombs and monuments to writers, as well as living writers, actual people dragged into the novel.  The tomb of Dante in Ravenna (“On your funeral urn, Father Dante! As I embraced it I became all the more determined,” 115); the tombs of Galileo, Michelangelo, and Machiavelli in Florence (“as I approached them I found myself shuddering,” 84); the last home of Petrarch in the Euganean hills (“I approached the house like one about to prostrate himself on the tombs of his ancestors,” 18).

He visits the poet Giuseppe Parini in Milan.  “He is afraid of being expelled from his professorship and finding himself constrained, after seventy years of studies and glory, to dies begging for his bread” (91).  Ortis does not visit Vittorio Alfieri, who “refuses to make fresh acquaintances, and I would not presume to ask him to break this resolution of his, which is probably the result of the times in which we live…” (85).

Alfieri is mentioned or quoted as many times as any writer, comparable to references to Dante and Petrarch.  Most of the Alfieri quotations are from Saul.  I am mentally addressing anyone who thinks Wuthering Expectations is full of obscure writers.  No, famous writers, only the best known writers.

The living are necessary because there is the paradoxical risk that if Italy is literature then Italy is already dead and entombed.  In a bookshop in Milan, Ortis asks for the Autobiography of Cellini:

They did not have it.  I asked for another writer, but he said, rather spitefully, that he did not sell Italian books.  (91)

In another scene, a nobleman brags about “the prodigious library of his ancestors” (41) but is really only interested in their title-pages, in completing his collection.  Ortis’s vision of history, and thus of the future, is apocalyptic:

Often I imagine this world in chaos, and heaven, and the sun, and the ocean, and all the spheres in flames, in nothingness.  But if only in the midst of this universal ruin I could clasp Teresa once more – only once more in these arms – I would cry out for the destruction of all creation.  (64)

I have no real idea where the author, Foscolo, is in all this.  Maybe he meant the passage as a criticism of Ortis’s deviation from revolutionary fervor.  I doubt it.  There is nothing like this in The Sorrows of Young Werther, that is all I am trying to say.


Tomorrow I will move ahead a few years – more Foscolo, more Italian writers, and more tombs.

Friday, February 13, 2015

So I go on raving - Ugo Foscolo's great Werther ripoff

What seemed logical was to move from Dino Campana back a century to Giacomo Leopardi, the poet who was so good he ruined Italian poetry for a hundred years.  I have already forgotten where I read that.  Not to knock Leopardi, but I have some doubts.

Regardless, first I will go back a few years to a slightly earlier poet, the Romantic and revolutionary Ugo Foscolo.  His poems are hard to find in English.  Ten years ago, or more, I remember finding somewhere on the internet a fine translation of many of Foscolo’s sonnets (c. 1813).  No idea where.  I should have made a copy.

Instead I will start with Foscolo’s derivative yet conceptually ingenious little 1802 novel Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis, an unashamed ripoff of The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) that transplants Goethe’s masterpiece to Italy and turns Werther into a nationalist radical.  He is exiled for political activities from his native Venice to the nearby Euganean hills near Padua (an area that is now a national park – seems awfully nice) where he meets a young woman who becomes the new object of his passionate intensity and tendency to go too far.

Like Young Werther, Jacopo Ortis is an epistolary novel composed mostly of the title characters letters to his more level-headed friend.  Otherwise, let’s see:

1.  This time, the love is not unrequited.  The heroine falls for Ortis, but cannot marry him due to money and Italian fathers and so on.  The heroine is a bundle of clichés, nothing close to Goethe’s Lotte, a great character.  This is perhaps because:

2.  Goethe wrote his novel when he was 25, older than his characters; Foscolo wrote his when he was 19, younger than his hero.  More of Foscolo comes from other books, including his characters.

3.  It is amazing how many themes associated with Romanticism Goethe anticipates in Werther.  Foscolo is the genuine thing, which can be tiresome even in a short novel.  “So I go on raving!” writes Jacopo.  So you do, kid, so you do (p. 62).  What if Werther were Italian and had read Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Heloise (1761)?  That comes close.

At every step I greeted the family of flowers and plants as they gradually raised their heads which were bent beneath the hoar frost.  The trees, gently rustling, made the transparent drops of dew flicker against the light, while the dawn winds were washing the superfluous liquid from the plants.  You might have heard a solemn harmony spreading confusedly throughout the woods, the birds, the flocks, the rivers, and the labours of mankind, and meanwhile the breathing air was perfumed with the exhalations which the exulting earth sent up from the valleys and hills to the sun, Nature’s chief minister.  I pity the wretch who can awake in silence and coldly regard such blessings without feelings his eyes bathed in tears of thankfulness.  Then it was I saw Teresa in all the glorious trappings of her grace.  (14-5)

Now that is some good pathetic fallacy.  Some readers will sigh, others will guffaw.  I suppose I am somewhere in between.

I read the J. G. Nichols translation published by Hesperus.  Is it the only English translation?  I think I will write one more piece on what is most original about Foscolo’s novel.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Warble warble squashed blackberry - Dino Campana sings a love song

I think Charles Wright’s translation of Campana is better than the older I. L. Salomon translation.  If there is still such a thing as a great American poet, he is one of them, and his translations strike me as superior poems.  I am glad I read Salomon’s book, though; first, it has more poems and second it has the Italian.  I don’t know Italian.  Sometimes that does not matter.

from Serenade: Bitter False Melodramatic

The comedian with serious and deep voice
With a goat’s profile and a hollow
Infernal eye flashing
Sings a song of love:
Warble warble squashed blackberry
Dawn comes soon, the dawn’s awake.

That, you say, is the song of love sung by the Goat Comic.  Let’s glance at the original of the last two lines:

Trilla trilla mora pesta
Presto è l’alba, presto è desta.

Why, this is songful, with rhymes and assonance and all that poetical stuff.  This may even be, dare I say, beautiful, comparable to the most beautiful poem in English (Italian verse’s sad burden is that it is too easily beautiful).

Campana is a weird writer, but Salomon maybe plays up his weirdness.  If the alternative is flatness, all too common in poetic translation, the kind that makes a reader wonder what the big deal is, then Salomon made the right choice.  Still, there must be something better than “Warble warble squashed blackberry.”

Part of Campana’s genuine weirdness is that he read with deep appreciation not just Walt Whitman but Edgar Allan Poe.  Much of Orphic Songs is in prose; much of the prose sounds like:

I was in the shadow of an arcade which dripped drop after drop of blood-gorged light through the fog of a December night.  Without warning a door was flung open in a splendor of light.  In the foreground of the far end of the room in the luminescence of a red ottoman an older woman was lying up on one elbow, her head resting in her hand, her brown eyes like brown fire, her breasts enormous…  (“The Night,” tr. Wright)

Campana has read “The Philosophy of Furniture.”  Campana’s women are not Poe’s women, although they are similarly idealized.  Poe was not so interested in prostitutes.

The Poe-effect merges with another resemblance that everyone mentions, so I will, too, since I felt it first and then went looking for it:

I remember an old city, red walls and red battlements, on the immense plain burnt out from the August heat, with the far-away spongy cold comfort of green hills in the background… I raised my eyes unconsciously to the barbarous tower which dominated the long avenue of plane trees…  A Deserted little piazza, broken hovels like old bruises, dead windows: to one side in an enormous wash of light, the tower, eight-pointed arid impenetrably red and unadorned; a dried up 16th-century fountain kept silent, its stone shattered in the middle of its own Latin commentary.  (“The Night,” still, italics all mine)

I read this passage, and several others, trying to remember exactly which Giorgio de Chirico painting it was copying.  Several and none, presumably.  The Red Tower, above, is from 1913; Campana did not know De Chirico but could have seen his work in magazines.  Who knows.  Silent fountains, blue mountains, a woman off in the far distance, while “[f]rom among the twilit rocks a black horned immobile shape watches me I too immobile with its golden eyes” (“La Verna”)

A lot of fine weirdness.  Perhaps the next time I read Campana I will try to make some sense of it.  This time, I did not.

Monday, February 9, 2015

O poetry poetry poetry - some stuff about Dino Campana

from The Violent Sounds of Night

O poetry poetry poetry
Rise rise rise up
From the electric fever of the pavement at night.  (tr. I. L. Salomon)

Reading Dino Campana, author of Orphic Songs (1914), I was surprised to find myself in the presence of a poet deeply influenced by Walt Whitman.  I can hear Whitman in the beginning of the above poem.  That third line is not so bad in Italian (“Su dalla febbre elettrica del selciato notturno”).

Soon enough Whitman drops away – “At the crossroads a depraved whore screams / Because a fop stole her puppy” or “In a mantle of ogling velvety blood / Silence again.”  But traces appear again and again.  I do not know much about how Whitman was received in Europe, aside from Swinburne’s respect and the deep, complex use Fernando Pessoa made of him.  Campana is not so deep.  He was the kind of poet who hopped from movement to movement, trying out the role of Decadent and Futurist and several others.  Like many American poets, Campana somehow needed Whitman’s example to free himself from Italian poetry.

from Voyage to Montevideo

And I saw the dunes
Like dizzying mares that melted away
Into the endlessness of the grasslands
Deserted without a single human house
And we turned away fleeing the dunes where there appeared
On a yellow sea created by the prodigious abundance of the river,
The marine capital of the new continent.  (tr. Charles Wright)

Campana almost became an American poet.  Like so many of his countrymen, he emigrated, in his case to Argentina (the “marine capital” is Buenos Aires).  He could have joined the Argentinean Literature of Doom.  He would have fit right in.

In the Argentine he worked as a gaucho, miner, stoker, fireman with police duties.  He became a tumbler in a circus and its janitor.  In the maritime provinces, he tempered steel, played the triangle in an orchestra, groomed horses, cranked a barrel-organ.  He was also a pianist in a nightclub.  (Salomon’s Preface, p. xviii)

But he did not stay.  He hoboed around Europe, ending up in a jail a couple of times before getting back home, the mountains northeast of Florence, where he wrote his radical Orphic Songs, the manuscript of which was soon lost by a magazine editor.  Campana rewrote the book from scratch and published it himself.  This was in 1914, bad timing, or perhaps a stroke of luck, since a few years later Campana found himself in the insane asylum where he would die.  He had stopped writing poems.

A poet named Rei Terada has a biographical poem in the June 1996 Poetry titled “Dino Campana” that says all of the above and more:

I was a poet fine as you could find,
but had to stop, being of unsound mind.

A Whitman-quoting, circus-tumbling, piano-playing hobo poet: Campana is often compared to Rimbaud, but the more I got to know him, the more I thought of him as a Beat writing forty years early and in a prettier language.

The Salomon translations and Wright translations are from separate volumes titled Orphic Songs.  Wright’s are better; Salomon’s have facing-page Italian. The latter is a City Lights book, a subtle clue that Campana might have some interest to Beat poets.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

A book expressing this liquid, mystic theme - Whitman explains himself

The Civil War episodes of Specimen Days, Whitman’s memorials to soldiers he tended, soldiers who suffered and died, are the best part of the book.  I am clear on that.  The latter parts, mostly about Whitman’s travels, are lesser, and Whitman was not a first-rate nature writer.  Still, he is often intensely interesting.

There are a number of fine descriptions:

Then there is a beautiful weed cover'd with blue flowers, (the blue of the old Chinese teacups treasur'd by our grand-aunts,) I am continually stopping to admire – a little larger than a dime, and very plentiful.

It’s the parenthetical interruption that is especially good.  This is soon followed by a pure list of “perennial blossoms and friendly weeds.” Whitman, poet laureate of weeds.  Here, Whitman is on the Camden ferry at night:

On the edges of the river, many lamps twinkling – with two or three huge chimneys, a couple of miles up, belching forth molten, steady flames, volcano-like, illuminating all around – and sometimes an electric or calcium, its Dante-Inferno gleams, in far shafts, terrible, ghastly-powerful. Of later May nights, crossing, I like to watch the fishermen's little buoy-lights – so pretty, so dreamy – like corpse candles – undulating delicate and lonesome on the surface of the shadowy waters, floating with the current.

New Jersey in the 1870s.  Maybe this is not strictly speaking nature writing.  Industrial writing.

More often, just as in his poems, Whitman moves rapidly from the specific to general, too often into twaddle, but not always.  I have mentioned my admiration for Whitman’s sea shore poems, today under his influence almost a specific genre of American poetry.  In Specimen Days he describes their origin in his childhood on Long Island:

Even as a boy, I had the fancy, the wish, to write a piece, perhaps a poem, about the sea-shore – that suggesting, dividing line, contact, junction, the solid marrying the liquid – that curious, lurking something, (as doubtless every objective form finally becomes to the subjective spirit,) which means far more than its mere first sight, grand as that is – blending the real and ideal, and each made portion of the other.

I’ll interrupt Whitman to note that even for a writer as drawn to manifestos and statements of purpose as he was, this is as explicit and, for me, useful description of his poetry as I remember.  On the one hand, it is all metaphor, and on the other, no, this is what his poems are like, and not just the seashore poems:

Hours, days, in my Long Island youth and early manhood, I haunted the shores of Rockaway or Coney island, or away east to the Hamptons or Montauk.  Once, at the latter place, (by the old lighthouse, nothing but sea-tossings in sight in every direction as far as the eye could reach,) I remember well, I felt that I must one day write a book expressing this liquid, mystic theme.  Afterward, I recollect, how it came to me that instead of any special lyrical or epical or literary attempt, the sea-shore should be an invisible influence, a pervading gauge and tally for me, in my composition.

I suppose it is inevitable that Specimen Days has become a supplement to Whitman’s major work, his best poems, whatever merit the book has on its own.  More of the same in a different format, but Whitman is the great poet of “more.”

Friday, February 6, 2015

I stopp’d long and long - poems from Whitman's Specimen Days

The autobiographical side of the 1891 Leaves of Grass would have been clear enough on its own, I hope, but I also read Walt Whitman’s fragmentary memoir Specimen Days in America (1881-2), “some authentic glints, specimen-days of my life,” alongside – more like ahead of – the poems.  I had thought that the book was primarily about Whitman’s experiences as a volunteer nurse in Washington, D.C. during the Civil War, but I was incorrect.  Only about a third of the book covers, and was written during that time.  Probably the best third, so I see why I had that impression.  But there is also plenty of travel, nature writing, and thoughts on writers, often upon their deaths.

And just random what-I-saw, on Broadway in New York City:

A few days ago one of the six-story clothing stores along here had the space inside its plate-glass show-window partition'd into a little corral, and litter'd deeply with rich clover and hay, (I could smell the odor outside,) on which reposed two magnificent fat sheep, full-sized but young – the handsomest creatures of the kind I ever saw.  I stopp'd long and long, with the crowd, to view them – one lying down chewing the cud, and one standing up, looking out, with dense-fringed patient eyes.  Their wool, of a clear tawny color, with streaks of glistening black – altogether a queer sight amidst that crowded promenade of dandies, dollars and dry-goods.

I guess you do not have to be a particularly observant writer to have noticed this, or even to come up with this description.  “I stopp’d long and long” is a good description of what Whitman does in his book.

In the lane as I came along just now I noticed one spot, ten feet square or so, where more than a hundred [light-yellow butterflies] had collected, holding a revel, a gyration-dance, or butterfly good-time, winding and circling, down and across, but always keeping within the limits.

Whitman never becomes a serious naturalist like Thoreau, but he knows how to stop and watch.

The paragraph with the butterflies would not be too hard to turn into a Whitman poem titled “Butterfly Good-time.”  Just as some of Whitman’s poems are prose, some of his prose could just as well be a poem:

The dead in this war – there they lie, strewing the fields and woods and valleys and battle-fields of the South – Virginia, the Peninsula – Malvern hill and Fair Oaks – the banks of the Chickahominy – … and blackest and loathesomest of all, the dead and living burial-pits, the prison-pens of Andersonville, Salisbury, Belle-Isle, etc., (not Dante's pictured hell and all its woes, its degradations, filthy torments, excell'd those prisons)--the dead, the dead, the dead – our dead – or South or North, ours all, (all, all, all, finally dear to me)

Wonderful stuff – just insert line-breaks where appropriate – culminating in the origin of the compost poem:

… the infinite dead – (the land entire saturated, perfumed with their impalpable ashes' exhalation in Nature's chemistry distill'd, and shall be so forever, in every future grain of wheat and ear of corn, and every flower that grows, and every breath we draw) – not only Northern dead leavening Southern soil – thousands, aye tens of thousands, of Southerners, crumble to-day in Northern earth.

In fact, or I guess opinion, a poem quite a bit better than the compost poem, hidden in Specimen Days along with a dozen others almost as good.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

I say nourish a great intellect, a great brain - Whitman reads

The words of my book nothing, the drift of it every thing,
A book separate, not link’d with the rest nor felt by the intellect,
But you ye untold latencies will thrill to every page.  (“Inscriptions: Shut Not Your Doors”)

Often, I almost believe this kind of guff from Whitman.  He is such an original.  His inspiration comes from somewhere else, somewhere few poets can go.

Oxen that rattle the yoke and chain or halt in the leafy shade, what is
             that you express in your eyes?
It seems to me more than all the print I have read in my life.  (“Song of Myself,” 13)

Or it could just be an ultra-Romantic stance, a claim to purity and authenticity.

Away with old romance!
Away with old novels, plots and plays of foreign courts,
Away with love-verses sugar’d in rhyme, the intrigues, amours of idlers, (etc., “Song of the Exposition,” 7)

I have landed on Whitman’s most irritating poem, the one where he turns into a Socialist Realist.

To sing in songs how exercise in chemical life are never to be baffled,
To manual work for each and all, to plough, hoe, dig,
[blah blah blah]
To use the hammer and the saw, (rip, or cross-cut)  (“Song of the Exposition,” 7)

That last line is like self-parody.  I am digressing.

Reading Whitman’s final arrangement of Leaves of Grass, I did not pay too much attention to the chronology of the poems, written from Whitman’s thirties to his seventies, but since the book functions as a kind of memoir in verse it was often clear enough how poems fit into Whitman’s life.  Many are explicitly poems of old age.  What a surprise to find Whitman turning directly to literature in a late edition:

The Cid, Roland at Roncesvalles, the Nibelungen,
The troubadours, minstrels, minnesingers, skalds,
Chaucer, Dante, flocks of singing birds,  (“Good-Bye My Fancy: Old Chants”)

The most recent writers: “Shakspere, Schiller, Walter Scott, Tennyson.”  And of course the birds, that wonderful, sly, perfect inclusion of the birds along with Homer and the “Biblic books and prophets.”

Whitman’s 1888 book November Boughs has a prose preface, “A Backward Glance o’er Travel’d Roads,” that has more detail.  He describes his lifelong reading of Scott’s poetry, “an inexhaustible mine and treasury of poetic forage (especially the endless forests and jungles of notes),” which made me laugh since it is exactly those jungles in Scott’s novels that I find not inexhaustible but exhausting.

He describes the importance to him of reading outdoors, in the woods or on the seashore – “it makes such difference where you read”:

(I have wonder’d since why I was not overwhelm’d by those mighty masters [Homer, etc].  Likely because I read them, as described, in the full presence of Nature, under the sun, with the far-spreading landscape and vistas, or the sea rolling in).

Whitman even describes his debt to Edgar Allan Poe, a great surprise to me, not for his fiction or poetry (“melodious expressions, and perhaps never excell’d ones, of certain pronounc’d phases of human morbidity”), but rather for his criticism, for Poe’s writing as a theorist of poetry.

I say nourish a great intellect, a great brain;
If I have said anything to the contrary, I hereby retract it.  (“Says,” 2)

But these lines from the 1860 Leaves of Grass are missing from the 1891 Leaves of Grass.  Perhaps Whitman was retracting his retraction, but then in 1888 retracting that.  Of course Whitman loved literature!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Behold this compost! behold it well! - singing along with Walt Whitman

Now when Whitman is not speaking bad prose he sings, and when he sings at all he sings well.  (Swinburne Letters, Vol. 3, Feb. 20 1875 to E. C. Stedman)

After a couple of decades rummaging through Walt Whitman I finally managed to read his complete poems, the 1891 Leaves of Grass, in my edition 400 packed pages of bad prose and fine singing.  Some of my “reading” was pretty mechanical, more of a one-eyed check that this particular poem was another one of those poems, one of the many returns to the same subject.  Sometimes reading is like flying; sometimes it is more like digging, and Whitman is a poet of the earth:

Who has gone farthest? for I would go farther…
And who has made hymns fit for the earth? for I am mad with
            devouring ecstasy to make joyous hymns for the whole earth. (“From Noon to Starry Night: Excelsior,” ellipses mine, skipping many other strong claims)

Earth poems; mole poems.  Compost poems.  Literally so – see “Autumn Rivulets: This Compost.”  Readers may remember when, several years ago, I invoked Whitman as the patron poet of weeding.  He is suitable for gardening, too, although in this poem the compostable material is man:

O how can it be that the ground itself does not sicken?
How can you be alive you growths of spring?
How can you furnish health you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?
Are they not continually putting distemper’s corpses within you?
Is not every continent work’d over and over with sour dead?

Reading Whitman in bulk did finally pound in the significance the Civil War had for him – the destruction he saw on battlefields and in his work as a nurse, none of which turned him away from the Union cause, and how could it?

Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions
               of diseas’d corpses,
It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal, annual, sumptuous
               crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from
               them at last.

A happy ending, in an ecological sense.  So many poems return to the war.

I do not see where to include my favorite line, so it goes here: “Behold this compost! behold it well!”  Is this bad prose or singing?  As radically different as they are, Whitman and Swinburne share a tendency to trip into kitsch, a necessary risk of their innovative verse.  They are poets who “would go farther,” poets who go too far.

O to make the most jubilant song!
Full of music – full of manhood, womanhood, infancy!
Full of common employments – full of grain and trees.

O for the voices of animals – O for the swiftness and balance of fishes! (“A Song of Joys”)

And heck if the poem does not have some wonderfully described scenes of fishermen at work – “the dark green lobsters are desperate with their claws as I take them out, I insert wooden pegs in the joints of their pincers.”  Prose or singing?  This is how Whitman sings.

O to have life henceforth a poem of new joys!
To dance, clap hands, exult, shout, skip, leap, roll on, float on!
To be a sailor of the world bound for all ports,
A ship itself, (see indeed these sails I spread to the sun and air,)
A swift and swelling ship full of rich words, full of joys.

Monday, February 2, 2015

What though the beauty I love and serve be cheap - Swinburne reins it in a little.

Aside from hundreds of pages of letters, Swinburne was always writing.  As usual, I have my Yale University Press Major Poems and Selected Prose handy, with all of the heavy editing that involves.  Swinburne’s 1876 book Songs of Two Nations, all political poems, is reduced to a single sonnet, “Locusta”:

This haggard harlot grey of face and green
With the old hand’s cunning mixes her new priest
The cup she mixed her Nero, stirred and spiced.

“Spiced” rhymes with “Christ.”  A note tells me Swinburne is celebrating the death of Napoleon III.  If the rest of the political poems are this colorful, I am mistaken not to seek them out, even if I will have no idea about the subjects of the poems.  “The loose lewd limbs, the reeling hingeless hips” and so on.

My collection does better with the 1878 Poems and Ballads, Second Series which contains a number of masterpieces, including Swinburne’s 1868 elegy on the death of Charles Baudelaire, “Ave atque Vale.”  No special pleading needed for that one, nor for “A Forsaken Garden,” the ultra-Romantic blend of two of Swinburne’s favorite themes, flowers and the sea.  The abandoned garden is atop a sea-cliff:

Heart handfast in heart as they stood, “Look thither,”
  Did he whisper? “look forth from the flowers to the sea;
For the foam-flowers endure when the rose-blossom wither,
  And men that love lightly may die – but we?”
And the same wind sang and the same waves whitened,
  And or ever the garden’s last petals were shed,
In the lips that had whispered, the eyes had lightened,
  Love was dead.  (ll. 41-8)

Other stanzas are even better, but this one has the foam-flowers.  Swinburne often fills his poems with lovingly chosen multi-syllable Latinate words, achieving sublime and ridiculous effects, but there is little of that in “A Forsaken Garden”:

Here now in his triumph where all things falter,
  Stretched out on the spoils that his own hand spread,
As a god self-slain on his own strange altar,
  Death lies dead.  (ll. 77-80)

The poem is practically a Lovecraft story.

I’ll skip “The Complaint of Lisa,” a double sestina with an additional internal rhyme structure, insane that Swinburne actually pulls it off, and jump to his translations of François Villon, the two I have in this collection.  The rest I need to track down.  “In the early 1860s ACS and Rossetti planned to collaborate on translating all of Villon, a project  that never came to fruition” (p. 484) – a volume I will seek out when I am admitted to the Library of Lost Books.

“The Ballad of Villon and Fat Madge” was excluded from Poems and Ballads and “The Complaint of the Fair Armouress” trimmed because of offenses to Victorian sensibilities – “but two lines too literal in their photography of the female human form divine for reproduction by a modern English camera” (Letters, Feb. 8, 1877) – as the maid examines her aged body and cries for the loss of her old love:

“And he died thirty year agone,
  I am old now, no sweet thing to see;
By God, though, when I think thereon,
  And of that good glad time, woe’s me,
  And stare upon my changed body
Stark naked, that has been so sweet,
  Lean, wizen, like a small dry tree,
I am nigh mad with the pain of it.”  (ll. 3-40)

But as Fat Madge asks in her poem:

What though the beauty I love and serve be cheap,
  Ought you to take me for a beast or fool?  (ll. 1-2)

So Villon, too; so asks Swinburne.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Completely knocked up and broken down - the third volume of Swinburne's letters - he says he was poisoned by the perfume of lilies

“You read Volume 3 of Swinburne’s letters but did not write about it.  What is wrong with you?”

That is a good question!  As with the first two volumes that I have read, the third volume of six, published in 1960, edited by Cecil Lang, covering just 1875 through 1877, is full of startling and original things along with the usual tedious nonsense found in most collections of letters.  I will gather up some of the former and ignore the latter.

Swinburne is almost forty, past the peak of his creativity, I think, but still full of ideas and poetry, and also full of alcohol.  This volume includes 1/6th of Swinburne’s extant letters but covers only 1/25th of his life as a letter-writer – why?  Randomness in the survival of letters, perhaps, but no. I think not.

First, nearly half of his surviving letters at this point are to his great friend Theodore Watts, who is acting as what we would now call a literary agent and will soon rescue Swinburne from certain death by becoming his roommate, butler, nurse, and who knows what else.  Once Swinburne moves in with Watts, their letters will dry up.

Second, in June 1875, Swinburne injures his leg in what I assume is a drunken escapade and is laid up for months at the home of his parents.  The letters pour out.  It is part of the novel-like quality of Swinburne’s letters that he is an unreliable narrator about his alcoholism.  Later, he is ill again, this time poisoned by flowers:

I don’t know whether you heard from any quarter of my being accidentally poisoned some months since by the perfume of Indian lilies in a close bedroom – which sounds romantic, but was horrible in experience, and I have not yet recovered the results or regained my strength.  (Oct. 17, 1876 to Edmund Gosse)

This must be the result of some drunken excess, yes?  However Decadently perfect, Swinburne cannot possibly have been poisoned by the scent of flowers to the extent that “I have been but a rag of unmanned manhood, barely able to read or write or think consecutively” (Oct. 28, 1876, to John Nichol)?  Regardless, it means more letters.

Swinburne is constantly pestered by an American committee erecting a monument to Poe – “the singularly horrible monument” (April 21, 1876, to J. H. Ingram).  In the same letter Swinburne looks forward to a Poe biography, even though “[m]emoirs are generally as hateful to me as monuments, and both among the darkest terrors of death.”

He is a pleasure to read on poets, on writers, on “Emile Zola’s Assommoir (or Vomitoire as I called it when it was coming out in weekly emetics)” (Feb, 3, 1877) or François Villon, “as indisputably greater than Chaucer as lesser than Dante in natural gift of poetic genius” (April 2, 1876), or the poems of Matthew Arnold and Dante Gabriel Rossetti:

…  those two admirable poets, to my lifelong perplexity and disgust, can see almost nothing in each other’s work to admire or enjoy.  ‘It is really singular’ as Mme. de Sévigné’s candid and charming old friend said to her ‘that I should be the one only person I know in the world whose judgment is invariably right’ – is it not?  (Dec. 5, 1876)

I can’t include every good joke or idea.  On April 4, 1877 Swinburne wonders why he is unaffected by the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, even though “[Walter Savage] Landor wept like a lion-headed fountain,” and Swinburne himself finds that Villette can “completely knock me up and break me down (almost) even to think of.”  Now I am rambling.  I suppose I will move on to volume 4 at some point.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

They all fall back to hell - an attempt to get some more people to read When Mystical Creatures Attack

When Mystical Creatures Attack by Kathleen Founds, a 2014 comic novel.  Not the kind of thing I normally read.  Blurbs point to or are written by George Saunders, Wells Tower, Karen Russell, and Mark Leyner (who is known, it seems, for his “fearlessness” – rest of y’all writers are cowards), which probably helps pin down Founds in some way.  I have never read any of these writers, barely know who they are.  I paged through the book, thought it was funny – in fact assumed it was more of a kind of humor book than it really is – and bought it.

It was the chapter of Methodist church cookbook recipes that got me, dishes like Valley of the Shadow of Death by Chocolate Cake:

Directions: As the cake rises, call the kids around, and tell them about your girlhood, when you had polio, and Dad made a special sleigh to ride behind the donkey during plowing season, so you could mash manure into the ground with a stick.  We never had luxuries such as Death by Chocolate Cake!  During the winter of ’38, we were so hungry we ate the seed corn.  Then we ate the milk-cow.  Then we ate Andrew.  Andrew was our dog.  Ask the children if they know where Hush Puppies come from.  Then give them their dessert.  (51-2)

Meanwhile, other recipes are actually moving along two stories, one a kind of crisis not of faith but works by the pastor(from a lamb chop recipe: “Ask yourself if, in your longing for clarity and order, you have negated contradiction and paradox…  Fry three minutes on each side.  Garnish with rosemary,” 55), the other a struggle between Janice Gibbs and her new stepmother (“Reply that you do not even consider this cooking,” 54).

The latter is part of the larger story of the novel, the bad decisions and hard times of Janice and a schoolteacher she had for a few months.  Various parallels are made between the two women.  The story is advanced by means of school assignments, email, a misguided advice blog, fiction within the fiction, and regular old fiction.  Many of these would be gimmicks if done badly.

My idea of what the novel was changed a lot as I read it.  A big change came in the chapter where the teacher is writing about her (bad) father:

Dostoevsky Give Us Some Hope

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky tells this story:

A stingy old woman served only herself, save this – she once gave a turnip to a beggar…  The intercessory spirit petitions God, who says:  take that turnip, see if it will drag her out of hell.  (30)

The woman grabs the turnip, and another soul grabs her, and another and another:

“My turnip!” the old woman shouts, when she sees linked souls looping behind her.  She kicks.  She thrashes.

The turnip breaks.  They all fall back to hell.

The teacher, cataloguing her father’s rare acts of kindness, suspects that he, too, would kick and thrash.

Dostoevsky, or his character Grushenka, tells this story in Part III, Book VII, Chapter II, “An Onion.”  Constance Garnett has “onion,” not “turnip.”  Maybe translators disagree.  Maybe Founds thought “turnip” was funnier (it is).  The troubled Grushenka says “it’s a nice story” and identifies herself with the old woman.  She calls herself “wicked,” aside from one good deed.  Typically perverse Dostoevsky psychology – by the end of the story, few readers will find it so reassuring or “nice.”

When Mystical Creatures Attack ends with a heretical inversion of Grushenka’s parable of works and grace that is the farthest possible extension of the idea of novelistic sympathy.  It is an audacious scene that would be worth seeing even if the rest of the book did not seem particularly funny.

I have been discussing the book with nicole at bibliographing.  It has not been reviewed much by book bloggers.  We worry that there is something wrong with the marketing.  Maybe the graphics, all done by Founds herself (see above, borrowed from her website), or the blurbs, make the book look like something it is not, or something that it is but not merely.