Archive for October, 2011

This photograph of a Chinese woman stands in for Wu Tsao, of whom no image is known to exist.

















For the Courtesan  Ch’ing Lin
















On your slender body
Your jade and coral girdle ornaments chime
Like those of a celestial companion
Come from the Green Jade City of Heaven.
One smile from you when we meet,
And I become speechless and forget every word.
For too long you have gathered flowers,
And leaned against the bamboos,
Your green sleeves growing cold,
In your deserted valley:
I can visualize you all alone,
A girl harboring her cryptic thoughts.























You glow like a perfumed lamp
In the gathering shadows.
We play wine games
And recite each other’s poems.
Then you sing `Remembering South of the River’
With its heart breaking verses. Then
We paint each other’s beautiful eyebrows.
I want to possess you completely –
Your jade body
And your promised heart.










It is Spring.
Vast mists cover the Five Lakes.
My dear, let me buy a red painted boat
And carry you away















Untitled Poem I











Bitter rain in my courtyard
In the decline of Autumn,
I only have vague poetic feelings
That I cannot bring together.
They diffuse into the dark clouds
And the red leaves.










After the yellow sunset
The cold moon rises
Out of the gloomy mist.
I will not let down the blinds
Of spotted bamboo from their silver hook.
Tonight my dreams will follow the wind,
Suffering the cold,
To the jasper tower of your beautiful flesh.


















Untitled Poem II














I have closed the double doors.
In what corner of the heavens is she?
A horizontal flute
Beyond the red walls
Blown as gently as the breeze
Blows the willow floss.
In the lingering glow of the sunset
The roosting crows ignore my melancholy.
Once again I languidly get out of bed.
After I have burned incense,
I loiter on the jeweled staircase.





I regret the wasted years,
Sick, afraid of the cold, afraid of the heat,
While the beautiful days went by.
Suddenly it is the Autumn Feast of the Dead.
Constantly disturbed by the changing weather,
I lose track of the flowing light
That washes us away.
Who moved the turning bridges
On my inlaid psaltery?
I realize–
Of the twenty five strings
Twenty one are gone.









All three poems Translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung.
















Wu Tsao was born sometime around 1800; her year of birth and death are uncertain. She was the daughter of a merchant and married a merchant herself. Her experiences with these men were not positive and she sought out the company of women, as friends and as lovers. She wrote erotic poems to courtesans, creating unashamed lyric passages full of the sweetness of yearning.
She was China’s great lesbian poet, and she was popular while she lived, her songs sung throughout China. Her poetry dealt with a variety of topics, unlike other women poets of her time. This versatility, combined with casual style and personal tone, probably contributed to her popularity.
Later in life, Wu Tsao moved to seclusion and became a Taoist priestess.
In regards to Wu Tsao, Kenneth Rexroth writes “She is one of the great Lesbian poets of all time, perhaps not as great as Sappho, but certainly greater than any modern ones.” According to Rexroth, Wu Tsao is usually regarded as the third woman poet of China, after Li Ch’ing-chao and Chu Shu-chên, and with Ne-lan Hsin-tê as one of the two leading tz’u poets of the Ching (Manchu) Dynasty.
Given the quality of Wu Tsao’s work and her history, it is disturbing to find that her name rarely appears in Western profiles of poets, and she is not included in literary discussions of the lesbian poetic tradition.

This text is by Alix North















If anyone reading this post comes across any additional sources of information about Wu Tsao, please contact   LesbianPoetry@sappho.com and  diatsung@yahoo.com


Read Full Post »

Leo Tolstoy (September 9th 1828 - November 20th 1910)
















“… And you say that a man cannot, of himself, understand what is good
and evil; that it is all environment, that the environment swamps the
man. But I believe it is all chance. Take my own case . . .”

Thus spoke our excellent friend, Ivan Vasilievich, after a conversation
between us on the impossibility of improving individual character
without a change of the conditions under which men live. Nobody had
actually said that one could not of oneself understand good and evil;
but it was a habit of Ivan Vasilievich to answer in this way the
thoughts aroused in his own mind by conversation, and to illustrate
those thoughts by relating incidents in his own life. He often quite
forgot the reason for his story in telling it; but he always told it
with great sincerity and feeling.

He did so now.

“Take my own case. My whole life was moulded, not by environment, but by
something quite different.”

“By what, then?” we asked.

“Oh, that is a long story. I should have to tell you about a great many
things to make you understand.”

“Well, tell us then.”

Ivan Vasilievich thought a little, and shook his head.

“My whole life,” he said, “was changed in one night, or, rather,

“Why, what happened?” one of us asked.

“What happened was that I was very much in love. I have been in love
many times, but this was the most serious of all. It is a thing of
the past; she has married daughters now. It was Varinka B—-.” Ivan
Vasilievich mentioned her surname. “Even at fifty she is remarkably
handsome; but in her youth, at eighteen, she was exquisite–tall,
slender, graceful, and stately. Yes, stately is the word; she held
herself very erect, by instinct as it were; and carried her head high,
and that together with her beauty and height gave her a queenly air in
spite of being thin, even bony one might say. It might indeed have
been deterring had it not been for her smile, which was always gay and
cordial, and for the charming light in her eyes and for her youthful

“What an entrancing description you give, Ivan Vasilievich!”

“Description, indeed! I could not possibly describe her so that you
could appreciate her. But that does not matter; what I am going to
tell you happened in the forties. I was at that time a student in a
provincial university. I don’t know whether it was a good thing or no,
but we had no political clubs, no theories in our universities then.
We were simply young and spent our time as young men do, studying and
amusing ourselves. I was a very gay, lively, careless fellow, and had
plenty of money too. I had a fine horse, and used to go tobogganing
with the young ladies. Skating had not yet come into fashion. I went to
drinking parties with my comrades–in those days we drank nothing but
champagne–if we had no champagne we drank nothing at all. We never
drank vodka, as they do now. Evening parties and balls were my favourite
amusements. I danced well, and was not an ugly fellow.”

“Come, there is no need to be modest,” interrupted a lady near him.
“We have seen your photograph. Not ugly, indeed! You were a handsome

“Handsome, if you like. That does not matter. When my love for her was
at its strongest, on the last day of the carnival, I was at a ball at
the provincial marshal’s, a good-natured old man, rich and hospitable,
and a court chamberlain. The guests were welcomed by his wife, who was
as good-natured as himself. She was dressed in puce-coloured velvet, and
had a diamond diadem on her forehead, and her plump, old white shoulders
and bosom were bare like the portraits of Empress Elizabeth, the
daughter of Peter the Great.

It was a delightful ball. It was a splendid room, with a gallery for
the orchestra, which was famous at the time, and consisted of serfs
belonging to a musical landowner. The refreshments were magnificent, and
the champagne flowed in rivers. Though I was fond of champagne I did not
drink that night, because without it I was drunk with love. But I made
up for it by dancing waltzes and polkas till I was ready to drop–of
course, whenever possible, with Varinka. She wore a white dress with a
pink sash, white shoes, and white kid gloves, which did not quite reach
to her thin pointed elbows. A disgusting engineer named Anisimov robbed
me of the mazurka with her–to this day I cannot forgive him. He asked
her for the dance the minute she arrived, while I had driven to the
hair-dresser’s to get a pair of gloves, and was late. So I did not dance
the mazurka with her, but with a German girl to whom I had previously
paid a little attention; but I am afraid I did not behave very politely
to her that evening. I hardly spoke or looked at her, and saw nothing
but the tall, slender figure in a white dress, with a pink sash, a
flushed, beaming, dimpled face, and sweet, kind eyes. I was not alone;
they were all looking at her with admiration, the men and women alike,
although she outshone all of them. They could not help admiring her.

Although I was not nominally her partner for the mazurka, I did as a
matter of fact dance nearly the whole time with her. She always came
forward boldly the whole length of the room to pick me out. I flew to
meet her without waiting to be chosen, and she thanked me with a smile
for my intuition. When I was brought up to her with somebody else, and
she guessed wrongly, she took the other man’s hand with a shrug of her
slim shoulders, and smiled at me regretfully.

Whenever there was a waltz figure in the mazurka, I waltzed with
her for a long time, and breathing fast and smiling, she would say,
‘Encore’; and I went on waltzing and waltzing, as though unconscious of
any bodily existence.”

“Come now, how could you be unconscious of it with your arm round her
waist? You must have been conscious, not only of your own existence, but
of hers,” said one of the party.

Ivan Vasilievich cried out, almost shouting in anger: “There you are,
moderns all over! Nowadays you think of nothing but the body. It was
different in our day. The more I was in love the less corporeal was she
in my eyes. Nowadays you think of nothing but the body. It was different
in our day. The more I was in love the less corporeal was she in my
eyes. Nowadays you set legs, ankles, and I don’t know what. You undress
the women you are in love with. In my eyes, as Alphonse Karr said–and
he was a good writer–‘ the one I loved was always draped in robes of
bronze.’ We never thought of doing so; we tried to veil her nakedness,
like Noah’s good-natured son. Oh, well, you can’t understand.”

“Don’t pay any attention to him. Go on,” said one of them.

“Well, I danced for the most part with her, and did not notice how time

was passing. The musicians kept playing the same mazurka tunes over and
over again in desperate exhaustion–you know what it is towards the end
of a ball. Papas and mammas were already getting up from the card-tables
in the drawing-room in expectation of supper, the men-servants were
running to and fro bringing in things. It was nearly three o’clock.
I had to make the most of the last minutes. I chose her again for the
mazurka, and for the hundredth time we danced across the room.”

“The quadrille after supper is mine, ” I said, taking her to her place.

“Of course, if I am not carried off home,” she said, with a smile.

“I won’t give you up,” I said.

“Give me my fan, anyhow,” she answered.

“I am so sorry to part with it,” I said, handing her a cheap white fan.

“Well, here’s something to console you,” she said, plucking a feather
out of the fan, and giving it to me.

“I took the feather, and could only express my rapture and gratitude
with my eyes. I was not only pleased and gay, I was happy, delighted;
I was good, I was not myself but some being not of this earth, knowing
nothing of evil. I hid the feather in my glove, and stood there unable
to tear myself away from her.”

“Look, they are urging father to dance,” she said to me, pointing
to the tall, stately figure of her father, a colonel with silver
epaulettes, who was standing in the doorway with some ladies.

“Varinka, come here!” exclaimed our hostess, the lady with the diamond
ferronniere and with shoulders like Elizabeth, in a loud voice.

“Varinka went to the door, and I followed her”.

“Persuade your father to dance the mazurka with you, ma chere.–Do,
please, Peter Valdislavovich,” she said, turning to the colonel.

“Varinka’s father was a very handsome, well-preserved old man. He had
a good colour, moustaches curled in the style of Nicolas I., and
white whiskers which met the moustaches. His hair was combed on to his
forehead, and a bright smile, like his daughter’s, was on his lips and
in his eyes. He was splendidly set up, with a broad military chest, on
which he wore some decorations, and he had powerful shoulders and long
slim legs. He was that ultra-military type produced by the discipline of
Emperor Nicolas I.

When we approached the door the colonel was just refusing to dance,
saying that he had quite forgotten how; but at that instant he smiled,
swung his arm gracefully around to the left, drew his sword from its
sheath, handed it to an obliging young man who stood near, and smoothed

his suede glove on his right hand”.

“Everything must be done according to rule,” he said with a smile. He
took the hand of his daughter, and stood one-quarter turned, waiting for
the music.

At the first sound of the mazurka, he stamped one foot smartly, threw
the other forward, and, at first slowly and smoothly, then buoyantly
and impetuously, with stamping of feet and clicking of boots, his tall,
imposing figure moved the length of the room. Varinka swayed gracefully
beside him, rhythmically and easily, making her steps short or long,
with her little feet in their white satin slippers.

All the people in the room followed every movement of the couple. As
for me I not only admired, I regarded them with enraptured sympathy. I
was particularly impressed with the old gentleman’s boots. They were
not the modern pointed affairs, but were made of cheap leather,
squared-toed, and evidently built by the regimental cobbler. In order
that his daughter might dress and go out in society, he did not buy
fashionable boots, but wore home-made ones, I thought, and his square
toes seemed to me most touching. It was obvious that in his time he
had been a good dancer; but now he was too heavy, and his legs had not
spring enough for all the beautiful steps he tried to take. Still, he
contrived to go twice round the room. When at the end, standing with
legs apart, he suddenly clicked his feet together and fell on one
knee, a bit heavily, and she danced gracefully around him, smiling and
adjusting her skirt, the whole room applauded.

Rising with an effort, he tenderly took his daughter’s face between his
hands. He kissed her on the forehead, and brought her to me, under the
impression that I was her partner for the mazurka. I said I was not.
‘Well, never mind, just go around the room once with her,’ he said,
smiling kindly, as he replaced his sword in the sheath.

As the contents of a bottle flow readily when the first drop has been
poured, so my love for Varinka seemed to set free the whole force of
loving within me. In surrounding her it embraced the world. I loved
the hostess with her diadem and her shoulders like Elizabeth, and her
husband and her guests and her footmen, and even the engineer Anisimov
who felt peevish towards me. As for Varinka’s father, with his home-made
boots and his kind smile, so like her own, I felt a sort of tenderness
for him that was almost rapture.

After supper I danced the promised quadrille with her, and though I had
been infinitely happy before, I grew still happier every moment.

We did not speak of love. I neither asked myself nor her whether she
loved me. It was quite enough to know that I loved her. And I had only

one fear–that something might come to interfere with my great joy.

When I went home, and began to undress for the night, I found it quite
out of the question. I held the little feather out of her fan in my hand,
and one of her gloves which she gave me when I helped her into the
carriage after her mother. Looking at these things, and without closing
my eyes I could see her before me as she was for an instant when she had
to choose between two partners. She tried to guess what kind of person
was represented in me, and I could hear her sweet voice as she said,
‘Pride–am I right?’ and merrily gave me her hand. At supper she took
the first sip from my glass of champagne, looking at me over the rim
with her caressing glance. But, plainest of all, I could see her as she
danced with her father, gliding along beside him, and looking at the
admiring observers with pride and happiness.

He and she were united in my mind in one rush of pathetic tenderness.

I was living then with my brother, who has since died. He disliked
going out, and never went to dances; and besides, he was busy preparing
for his last university examinations, and was leading a very regular
life. He was asleep. I looked at him, his head buried in the pillow and
half covered with the quilt; and I affectionately pitied him, pitied him
for his ignorance of the bliss I was experiencing. Our serf Petrusha
had met me with a candle, ready to undress me, but I sent him away. His
sleepy face and tousled hair seemed to me so touching. Trying not to
make a noise, I went to my room on tiptoe and sat down on my bed. No, I
was too happy; I could not sleep. Besides, it was too hot in the rooms.
Without taking off my uniform, I went quietly into the hall, put on my
overcoat, opened the front door and stepped out into the street.

It was after four when I had left the ball; going home and stopping
there a while had occupied two hours, so by the time I went out it
was dawn. It was regular carnival weather–foggy, and the road full
of water-soaked snow just melting, and water dripping from the eaves.
Varinka’s family lived on the edge of town near a large field, one end
of which was a parade ground: at the other end was a boarding-school for
young ladies. I passed through our empty little street and came to the
main thoroughfare, where I met pedestrians and sledges laden with
wood, the runners grating the road. The horses swung with regular paces
beneath their shining yokes, their backs covered with straw mats
and their heads wet with rain; while the drivers, in enormous boots,
splashed through the mud beside the sledges. All this, the very
horses themselves, seemed to me stimulating and fascinating, full of

When I approached the field near their house, I saw at one end of it,
in the direction of the parade ground, something very huge and black,

and I heard sounds of fife and drum proceeding from it. My heart had
been full of song, and I had heard in imagination the tune of the
mazurka, but this was very harsh music. It was not pleasant.

What can that be?’ I thought, and went towards the sound by a slippery
path through the centre of the field. Walking about a hundred paces,
I began to distinguish many black objects through the mist. They were
evidently soldiers. ‘It is probably a drill,’ I thought.

So I went along in that direction in company with a blacksmith, who
wore a dirty coat and an apron, and was carrying something. He walked
ahead of me as we approached the place. The soldiers in black uniforms
stood in two rows, facing each other motionless, their guns at rest.
Behind them stood the fifes and drums, incessantly repeating the same
unpleasant tune.

“‘What are they doing?” I asked the blacksmith, who halted at my side.

“‘A Tartar is being beaten through the ranks for his attempt to desert,”
said the blacksmith in an angry tone, as he looked intently at the far
end of the line.

I looked in the same direction, and saw between the files something
horrid approaching me. The thing that approached was a man, stripped
to the waist, fastened with cords to the guns of two soldiers who were
leading him. At his side an officer in overcoat and cap was walking,
whose figure had a familiar look. The victim advanced under the blows
that rained upon him from both sides, his whole body plunging, his
feet dragging through the snow. Now he threw himself backward, and the
subalterns who led him thrust him forward. Now he fell forward, and they
pulled him up short; while ever at his side marched the tall officer,
with firm and nervous pace. It was Varinka’s father, with his rosy face
and white moustache.

At each stroke the man, as if amazed, turned his face, grimacing with
pain, towards the side whence the blow came, and showing his white teeth
repeated the same words over and over. But I could only hear what the
words were when he came quite near. He did not speak them, he sobbed
them out,–“‘Brothers, have mercy on me! Brothers, have mercy on me!’
But the brothers had, no mercy, and when the procession came close to
me, I saw how a soldier who stood opposite me took a firm step forward
and lifting his stick with a whirr, brought it down upon the man’s back.
The man plunged forward, but the subalterns pulled him back, and another
blow came down from the other side, then from this side and then from
the other. The colonel marched beside him, and looking now at his feet
and now at the man, inhaled the air, puffed out his cheeks, and breathed
it out between his protruded lips. When they passed the place where I

stood, I caught a glimpse between the two files of the back of the man
that was being punished. It was something so many-coloured, wet, red,
unnatural, that I could hardly believe it was a human body.

“‘My God!”‘ muttered the blacksmith.

The procession moved farther away. The blows continued to rain upon the
writhing, falling creature; the fifes shrilled and the drums beat, and
the tall imposing figure of the colonel moved along-side the man, just
as before. Then, suddenly, the colonel stopped, and rapidly approached a
man in the ranks.

“I’ll teach you to hit him gently,” I heard his furious voice say.
“Will you pat him like that? Will you?” and I saw how his strong hand
in the suede glove struck the weak, bloodless, terrified soldier for not
bringing down his stick with sufficient strength on the red neck of the

“‘Bring new sticks!” he cried, and looking round, he saw me. Assuming
an air of not knowing me, and with a ferocious, angry frown, he hastily
turned away. I felt so utterly ashamed that I didn’t know where to look.
It was as if I had been detected in a disgraceful act. I dropped my
eyes, and quickly hurried home. All the way I had the drums beating and
the fifes whistling in my ears. And I heard the words, ‘Brothers, have
mercy on me!’ or ‘Will you pat him? Will you?’ My heart was full of
physical disgust that was almost sickness. So much so that I halted
several times on my way, for I had the feeling that I was going to be
really sick from all the horrors that possessed me at that sight. I do
not remember how I got home and got to bed. But the moment I was about
to fall asleep I heard and saw again all that had happened, and I sprang

“Evidently he knows something I do not know,” I thought about
the colonel. “If I knew what he knows I should certainly
grasp–understand–what I have just seen, and it would not cause me such

But however much I thought about it, I could not understand the thing
that the colonel knew. It was evening before I could get to sleep,
and then only after calling on a friend and drinking till I was quite

“Do you think I had come to the conclusion that the deed I had witnessed
was wicked? Oh, no. Since it was done with such assurance, and was
recognised by every one as indispensable, they doubtless knew something
which I did not know. So I thought, and tried to understand. But no
matter, I could never understand it, then or afterwards. And not being
able to grasp it, I could not enter the service as I had intended. I
don’t mean only the military service: I did not enter the Civil Service
either. And so I have been of no use whatever, as you can see.”

“Yes, we know how useless you’ve been,” said one of us. “Tell us,
rather, how many people would be of any use at all if it hadn’t been for

“Oh, that’s utter nonsense,” said Ivan Vasilievich, with genuine

“Well; and what about the love affair?”

“My love? It decreased from that day. When, as often happened, she
looked dreamy and meditative, I instantly recollected the colonel on the
parade ground, and I felt so awkward and uncomfortable that I began to
see her less frequently. So my love came to naught. Yes; such chances
arise, and they alter and direct a man’s whole life,” he said in summing
up. “And you say . . .”













If I had to describe with one word the overall distillation of this short story by Count Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy, I would have to choose the word ‘confused’.

On the face it of it, it would seem quite clear why Ivan Vasilievich suddenly fell out of love with Varinka B, after he witnessed, on the same night of the ball,  the brutal assault her father the Colonel urged on a Tartar deserter in his command. A clear case, one would suppose, of the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children.

Earlier that evening, Vasilievich had watched the touching scene of a gallant old military man dancing  the Mazurka with his his beautiful young daughter: now before his very eyes, the  image of the quaint old general had been transformed into that of a sadistic bully.

The intense attraction Vasilievich felt for Varinka was gradually transformed into avoidance and then aversion, and suddenly the very personal nature of love, which is focused on an individual object becomes impersonal, and detached, because of something that is manifestly extrinsic to that object. Nothing substantial of significant happened to cause Vasilievich’s  irrational detachment from the willowy elegance of this slender young woman.  That he felt a sentimental surge of affection for the two of them when he saw them dancing together, and that the daughter’s smile resembled her father’s, is far too slender a thread to bind them together so firmly in any permanent association of opprobrium. There was nothing to show that Varinka approved of, or even knew of her father’s actions or propensities – so why then the dramatic volte-face? Vasilievich’s assertion that “He” (meaning the old Colonel) “and she were united in my mind in one rush of pathetic tenderness”  and “… his kind smile, so like her own… ” sound extremely lame and unpersuasive as reasons for his change of heart.

To answer that question we have to look not at Vasilievich, but at Tolstoy himself. Tolstoy was a man of contradictions. Like other humanitarians such as Mohandas Gandhi (a fervent admirer of Tolstoy) and Martin Luther King Jr, (a fervent admirer of Gandhi) his personal ethical behaviour diverged hugely from what he projected as his public image.

Like Gandhi, Tolstoy was a hypocrite, and a sexist exploiter (one for ‘spiritual’ and the other for ‘moral’ reasons)  of the women who were in his power.  During his early life as a soldier, and by his own admission, he indulged freely in “adultery, lies, theft and brutality.”  The diaries he kept during this time were full of his exploits of womanising and worse, the  outright rape of his serfs, which he felt he was entitled to as their owner.

Even though Tolstoy in his persona of pacifist and anarchist despised and derided the state for its treatment of its citizens, he himself presided over his estate and his wife and family as an absolute and unapologetic despot and it would appear that he considered  power and authority to be intrinsically evil, unless it was safely reposed in his own hands.

When Tolstoy was thirty two, on September 23rd 1862, following a hurried courtship, he married Sophia Andreevna Behrs, then a girl of sixteen, whom he brutally raped on their wedding night. More cruelly, he compelled this inexperienced young girl to read his diaries, with all their sordid details of his exploits as a frequenter of brothels and  sexual exploiter of gypsies, serfs, female servants, and the wives of his colleagues. The diaries, which covered a period of 20 years, also include the account of his contraction and treatment of gonorrhoea.

Perhaps Tolstoy supposed  he was being fair and honest in making these  detailed pre-nuptual disclosures, and if so, it was an alarming demonstration of his failure to grasp that the effect of some of his ‘morally inspired’ actions, while they satisfied some quasi-ethical need in himself, could be less than beneficial to others. In this particular case, Tolstoy may have ostensibly been sanitising his conscience in the interests of full disclosure, while filling the mind of a young girl with horrors she could not ever have imagined.

Throughout their marriage Sophia Andreevna suffered Tolstoy’s bullying and tyrannising even as she served him as secretary and proof-reader and copyist of his diaries, as well as  obedient wife and mother of their thirteen children. Sophia considered herself to be treated by Tolstoy as a brood-mare, and bitterly resented the “humiliation” of her constant pregnancies, but her options as the wife of a man who was emphatic in his denunciation of women who did not bear children as ‘whores’, were severely limited.

Tolstoy freely exploited his  inheritance of 40,000 silver rubles and the 330 slaves on his estate Yasnaya Polyana. He fathered at least one illegitimate child on one of his serfs, and his mistress and child continued to live on the estate after his marriage to Sophia. Tolstoy’s fierce misogynism demanded that his wife remain continuously pregnant and breast-feeding each of his thirteen children despite her excruciatingly painful mastitis.

During his 38 year marriage, Tolstoy continually bullied and abused his wife in ways that were appallingly cruel, and unlike his character Vasilievich in ‘After the Ball’ he did not scruple to flogg his defenseless underlings both as a military officer and as an owner of serfs.  Thus it would seem that Vasilievich, the shrinking violet, abjures the very sins that Tolstoy enthusiastically committed, and withdraws his affections from the the innocent daughter of the old Colonel who demanded the men of his command to mercilessly flog a man even as he begged for mercy, even though that daughter was not even remotely connected with her father’s actions.

As frequently happens with many rakes and reprobates when faced with the defeating inevitability of advanced age and physical debility that prevent any further indulgence in their former habitual vices, Tolstoy too became a champion of asceticism.  The narrowness of mind which made him completely unable to grasp anything of the moral complexity of Shakespeare (whom he dismissed as being utterly undeserving of either admiration or regard) and the fervent admirer of his fellow misogynist Schopenhauer, are symptomatic of Tolstoy’s propensity to fixate on a single idea (in this case religious ‘purity’)  to the exclusion of all others.

Tolstoy wrote his unfinished short story ‘After the Dance’, also known as ‘The Morning After the Ball’ at the turn of the previous century – probably around 1903 –  when he was 80 years old. By which time he was beginning to distance himself from his own historical past, and the terrible cruelties of his younger years.  But, in rejecting his sinful past, Tolstoy was not able to apply discrimination. He was only able to distance himself from the symbols of his sin, and continued as a cruel and capricious old man who vexed and inconvenienced his family to the very last.  He did not apply his political and spiritual principles in his private life: Rather they were a position he assumed in relation to the outside world. This strangely illogical inconsistency is common among men who see their wives and families as their personal possessions, and who are accustomed to being the central pivot around which the daily life of the family revolves. Much as he espoused political anarchy, Tolstoy the domestic autocrat, did not tolerate it from his spouse or under his own roof.

Tolstoy was undoubtedly a literary rambler, War and Peace  manifestly being the mother of all literary rambles. This tendency of Tolstoy’s once again surfaces In ‘After the Dance’, where he appears to grow forgetful and and lose the thread of his thoughts. Like many old people, the memories of his youth appear to be detailed  vivid and immediate, whereas the challenge of remaining focused on the conversation he is having proves to be too much, and so  he starts to drift….

Tolstoy’s final ramble of course was a literal one. Sometime in October-November of 1910 (the dates are unclear) he set off to begin his quixotic new life adventure as an ascetic renunciant peasant. It is unclear how he supposed this new career would play out, but by the time he got no further than Astopovo railway station close to his home in Yasnaya Polyana, it was apparent that that he was too ill to proceed.

The station master at Astopovo, Ivan Ivanovich Ozoli, took the ailing Tostoy in, and in an act of the most disinterested kindness and generosity to a complete stranger, later vacated his house, taking his family to live elsewhere while Tolstoy , surrounded by his doctors and minions  (including his daughter Alexandra) went about the prolonged business of dying.  There appears to be no evidence to suggest that Tolstoy ever repaid Ozoli’s kindness, and he probably took it as the deference due to the great man he supposed himself to be.

In the months closely preceding his death, Tolstoy’s sinister ‘disciple’, Vladimir Grigoryevich Chertkov was successful in getting Tolstoy to change his will, and name Chertkov himself as his literary executor. He had also  been largely instrumental in instigating Tolstoy’s last flight from his home.

Tolstoy may have been merely vain and quixotic – all his attempts to improve the lives of his serfs ended in dismal failure – but

The room in Astopovo where Tolstoy died.

Chertkov was self-serving and evil. It was he who promulgated the exaggerated legend of Tostoy as saint and Sophia as shrew. In his senescence, Tolstoy was pliable to Chertov’s ambitions, and far from being a saint, Tolstoy was a willing accomplice in the final injustice done to his wife Sophia, which was changing his will in Chertkov’s favour instead of making her the beneficiary of his literary estate. Tolstoy’s papers and the rights to his publications should have rightfully gone to Sophia, since throughout her married life as Tolstoy’s secretary and editor, a great deal of her time and talent had gone into it as well.

After Tolstoy’s death, Chertkov, who harboured a relentless animus against Sophia Tolstoy, managed to suppress her writing, and insert  himself as Tolstoy’s literary and spiritual heir. He worked assiduously during Tolstoy’s later years to separate him from his wife, and after Tolstoy’s death he was equally assiduous in calumniating Sophia and  vilifying her character and reputation.

In this he followed the example of St Peter, who after Jesus’s death, usurped Mary Magdalene’s  rightful position and replaced her royal and spiritual legacy with the thoroughly false and contrived substution with that of a harlot. By doing this he was able to insert himself as Christ’s successor and the head of the church. If Chertkov could have completely erased any evidence of Sophia’s existence, and removed her from the picture altogether, he would have done so, and then future generations would have been left with the legend of an unmarried Tolstoy with Chertkov at his side as his chosen and most devoted disciple.

So in the end, Tolstoy did indeed achieve his cherished desire of become  Christlike – but only in a way he would never have expected –  or could ever  even have recognised.








Here are two urls for recordings of Tolstoy’s voice.

Sophia Tolstoy and daughter Alexandra.
















And an interesting article about about how Sophia Tolstoy’s life and work and reputation were ruthlessly dismantled by  Vladimir  Chertkov.


Read Full Post »

Publius Virgilius Maro (October 15th 70 b.c.e – September 21st 19 b.c.e)

























Already had the night completed ten
Of winter’s hours, and by his crowing had
The winged sentinel announced the day,
When Symilus the rustic husbandman
Of scanty farm, solicitous about
The coming day’s unpleasant emptiness,
Doth slowly raise the limbs extended on
His pallet low, and doth with anxious hand
Explore the stilly darkness, groping for
The hearth which, being burnt, at length he finds.
I’ th’ burnt-out log a little wood remained,
And ashes hid the glow of embers which
They covered o’er; with lowered face to these
The tilted lamp he places close, and with
A pin the wick in want of moisture out
Doth draw, the feeble flame he rouses up
With frequent puffs of breath. At length, although
With difficulty, having got a light,
He draws away, and shields his light from draughts
With partially encircling hand, and with
A key the doors he opens of the part
Shut off to store his grain, which he surveys.
On th’earth a scanty heap of corn was spread:
From this he for himself doth take as much
As did his measure need to fill it up,
Which ran to close on twice eight pounds in weight
He goes away from here and posts himself
Besides his quern,’ and on a little shelf
Which fixed to it for other uses did
The wall support, he puts his faithful light.
Then from his garment both his arms he frees;
Begirt was he with skin of hairy goat
And with the tail thereof he thoroughly
Doth brush the stones and hopper of the mill.
His hands he then doth summon to the work
And shares it out to each, to serving was
The left directed and the right to th’ toil.
This turns about in tireless circles and
The surface round in rapid motion puts,
And from the rapid thrusting of the stones
The pounded grain is running down. At times
The left relieves its wearied fellow hand,
And interchanges with it turn about.
Thereafter country ditties doth he sing
And solaces his toil with rustic speech,
And meanwhile calls on Scybale to rise.
His solitary housekeeper was she,
Her nationality was African,
And all her figure proves her native land.
Her hair was curly, thick her lips, and dark
Her colour, wide was she across the chest
With hanging breasts, her belly more compressed,
With slender legs and large and spreading foot,
And chaps in lengthy fissures numbed her heels.
He summons her and bids her lay upon
The hearth some logs wherewith to feed the fire,
And boil some chilly water on the flame.
As soon as toil of turning has fulfilled
Its normal end, he with his hand transfers
The copious meal from there into a sieve,
And shakes it. On the grid the refuse stays,
The real corn refined doth sink and by
The holes is filtered. Then immediately
He piles it on a board that’s smooth, and pours
Upon it tepid water, now he brought
Together flour and fluid intermixed,
With hardened hand he turns it o’er and o’er
And having worked the liquid in, the heap
He in the meantime strews with salt, and now
His kneaded work he lifts, and flattens it
With palms of hand to rounded cake, and it
With squares at equal distance pressed doth mark.
From there he takes it to the hearth (ere this
His Scybale had cleaned a fitting place),
And covers it with tiles and heaps the fire
Above. And while Vulcanus, Vesta too,
Perform their parts i’ th’ meantime, Symilus
Is not inactive in the vacant hour,
But other occupation finds himself;
And lest the corn alone may not be found
Acceptable to th’ palate he prepares
Some food which he may add to it. For him
No frame for smoking meat was hung above
The hearth, and backs and sides of bacon cured
With salt were lacking, but a cheese transfixed
By rope of broom through mid-circumference
Was hanging there, an ancient bundle, too,
Of dill together tied. So provident
Our hero makes himself some other wealth.
A garden to the cabin was attached,
Some scanty osiers with the slender rush
And reed perennial defended this;
A scanty space it was, but fertile in
The divers kinds of herbs, and nought to him
Was wanting that a poor man’s use requires;
Sometimes the well-to-do from him so poor
Requested many things. Nor was that work
A model of expense, but one of care:
If ever either rain or festal day
Detained him unemployed within his hut,
If toil of plough by any chance was stopped,
There always was that work of garden plot.
He knew the way to place the various plants,
And out of sight i’ th’ earth to set the seeds,
And how with fitting care to regulate
The neighbouring streams. And here was cabbage, here
Were beets, their foliage extending wide;
And fruitful sorrel, elecampane too
And mallows here were flourishing, and here
Was parsnip,’ leeks indebted to their head
For name, and here as well the poppy cool
And hurtful to the head, and lettuce too,
The pleasing rest at end of noble foods.
[And there the radish sweet doth thrust its points
Well into th’ earth] and there the heavy gourd
Has sunk to earth upon its belly wide.
But this was not the owner’s crop (for who
Than he more straightened is?). The people’s ’twas
And on the stated days a bundle did
He on his shoulder into th’ city bear,
When home he used to come with shoulder light
But pocket heavy, scarcely ever did
He with him bring the city markets’ meat.
The ruddy onion, and a bed of leek
-For cutting, hunger doth for him subdue-,
And cress which screws one’s face with acrid bite,
And endive, and the colewort which recalls
The lagging wish for sexual delights.
On something of the kind reflecting had
He then the garden entered, first when there
With fingers having lightly dug the earth
Away, he garlic roots with fibres thick,
And four of them doth pull; he after that
Desires the parsley’s graceful foliage,
And stiffness-causing rue,’ and, trembling on
Their slender thread, the coriander seeds,
And when he has collected these he comes
And sits him down beside the cheerful fire
And loudly for the mortar asks his wench.
Then singly each o’ th’ garlic heads be strips
From knotty body, and of outer coats
Deprives them, these rejected doth he throw
Away and strews at random on the ground.
The bulb preserved from th’ plant in water doth
He rinse, and throw it into th’ hollow stone.
On these he sprinkles grains of salt, and cheese
Is added, hard from taking up the salt.
Th’ aforesaid herbs he now doth introduce
And with his left hand ‘neath his hairy groin
Supports his garment;’ with his right he first
The reeking garlic with the pestle breaks,
Then everything he equally doth rub
I’ th’ mingled juice. His hand in circles move:
Till by degrees they one by one do lose
Their proper powers, and out of many comes
A single colour, not entirely green
Because the milky fragments this forbid,
Nor showing white as from the milk because
That colour’s altered by so many herbs.
The vapour keen doth oft assail the man’s
Uncovered nostrils, and with face and nose
Retracted doth he curse his early meal;
With back of hand his weeping eyes he oft
Doth wipe, and raging, heaps reviling on
The undeserving smoke. The work advanced:
No longer full of jottings as before,
But steadily the pestle circles smooth
Described. Some drops of olive oil he now
Instils, and pours upon its strength besides
A little of his scanty vinegar,
And mixes once again his handiwork,
And mixed withdraws it: then with fingers twain
Round all the mortar doth he go at last
And into one coherent ball doth bring
The diff’rent portions, that it may the name
And likeness of a finished salad fit.
And Scybale i’ th’ meantime busy too
He lifted out the bread; which, having wiped
His hands, he takes, and having now dispelled,
The fear of hunger, for the day secure,
With pair of leggings Symilus his legs
Encases, and with cap of skin on ‘s head
Beneath the thong-encircled yoke he puts
Th’ obedient bullocks, and upon the fields
He drives, and puts the ploughshare in the ground.

Translation Joseph J Mooney.





How Publius Virgilius Maro, so beloved by the beaks of old and powerful educational institutions, and Latin scholars, came by his revered reputation, is a story of how the power of the state and the church came to infiltrate and debase genuine poetry, and compel its submission to suit the sordid requirements of politics and religion.

Virgil’s toadying to the great Augustus, who needed Latin equivalents of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in order to dignify his newly acquired imperial status, as well as a Latin impersonator of Homer to add  the much needed  sheen of pedigree and order to Rome’s muddled historical past, gave Virgil his first opportunity to infect with tortured contrivances and artifice the hitherto healthy body of Latin poetry.

Two centuries later, when imperial Rome had begun its descent into dissolution and decay and upstart Christianity commenced its progress towards  assuming the mantle of the state, some chance lines Virgil had written in order to congratulate his old teacher Pollio on the birth of a son, were found, and dusted off, and because of their resemblance to the words of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, came to be  enshrined as a pre-Christian prophesying of Jesus’  birth. This of course brought about what was to be Virgil’s second incarnation as a state-sponsored luminary at a later time, when church and state were to fuse in their evil binary.

The irony in all this, is that the felicitations Pollio received from Virgil were the snide congratulations of one pederast to another. Pollio was being praised for amending his ways after a life spent in the pursuit of boys, when he  finally married and fathered a son. These inflated and overblown lines (Virgil was never a moderate writer) turned out to be such perfect fodder for the Catholic church, that he was given special standing

From that point on, this heavy, swarthy, stammering dyspeptic man of ‘rustic’ appearance, (nicknamed ‘Parthenias’ or ‘maiden’)’ came to be a fixture in the curricula of respected universities. It was a further fillip to a thoroughly unmerited reputation, that another overrated literary revenge-fantasist, Dante Alighieri, took Virgil to be his guide in a prolonged survey of the infernal regions.

All this came about as a result of Virgil’s liberal borrowings from a motley collection of disparate documents, said to have been gathered from the far reaches of the Roman empire, which claimed to contain the prophesies of the Sybil. These Virgil mined and re cycled for his fulsome praises of Pollio’s infant. It is quite possible that Isiah’s prophesy was included in the weird bundle of state- acquired papers, which as a literary hireling of Augustus, came to rest in Virgil’s hands. This of course resulted in the parts of his fourth Eclogue which in Mormon-like fashion helped transform  Virgil  into a postmortem Christian.

Though it has come to be attributed to Virgil, “Moretum” may have been written by his Greek teacher, possibly Parthenius. Virgil had had a long history of plagiarising – eight volumes of his plagiarisms were collected and published in his lifetime.  But several lines in “Moretum” do smack quite strongly of Virgilian silliness and ignorance,  for instance,  when Symilus the farmer frees his arms from his goatskin garment, and uses its tail to brush the mill. Anyone who the slightest ability summon the image of this little pantomime of hairy Symilus dusting off his quern with the tail of the goat-skin he is wearing, will probably howl with unrestrained laughter at the vision this brings to mind.

And then there is the unfortunate matter of Virgil’s chronic tendency towards inelegant and superfluous periphrasis. A rooster becomes a “winged sentinel,” a farmer a “rustic husbandman” and Symilus does not merely fix his lunch, he waxes  “solicitous about the days unpleasant emptiness.” Nor does he simply get out of bed, but “slowly raise the limbs extended on his pallet low.”

This is Virgil’s attempt to trick the mind by means of seducing the ear. He uses Homeric hexametres –  with which the  well educated Greek-reading  Romans of his day were familiar, to add lustre to and elevate the preparations of the noble Roman peasant preparing his daily fare to the level of the glorious acts of Greek and Trojan heroes.  Symilus grinding his corn and mixing his herbs comes to resemble  –in metre at least – Hector speaking to Andromache or Achilles wielding his weapons.

In order to slyly accomplish his ends, Virgil had to  ruthlessly subverted content to form, the form being of course those dactylic hexametres so flawlessly applied in Homer’s native Greek, but so hopelessly unsuited to Virgil’s own language Latin. It was no easy task, and his repeated failures are thickly strewn throughout the Aeneid.

Virgil’s real ambition is of course not to elevate the poor Roman peasant, several of whom he doubtless displaced and ruined with his large slave-run agribusiness with which no honest peasant could compete, but to sneak his way under the mantle of Homer and share his laurel. This of course was manifestly impossible: The chasm which yawns between a mere hack and a bona-fide genius can never be bridged – and in the words of mark Twain the difference between them is similar to that which exists between the lightning bug and lightning.

When Virgil allows his fancy to range free about how a Roman peasant goes about preparing breakfast, he lets still more of his slip show. The statement that a farmer needs 16 pounds  (or more accurately 11.53 pounds, the Roman pound being the equivalent of 327 grams) of grain for his daily fare, is of course another Virgilian gaffe. We could of course be generous and suppose that some of the bread was to be shared with Scybele, and some to be saved for dinner – but that would still leave a daily ration of 5 3/4 pounds of bread each,  which might be rather difficult to swallow even for a hard-working peasant, let alone a modern reader.

And what to say of the fact that this hoary son of the soil sings country ditties at what must be four o clock of a winter morning …. a sturdy soul he have been indeed, but slightly daft as well.

As for the implication that Symilus could not afford to bring red-onions home from the market – what impediment could there ever have been to his growing them? If indeed the conventional attribution to Virgil is correct, this would be just another of his filchings, and that would make it a little less galling to me as a naturalised American, that  a slight variant of my country’s motto (except for a single letter) is found in a ‘poem’ about a nutritious edible paste.

Virgil obviously prided himself on his knowledge of agriculture and animal husbandry, but most of his ‘knowledge’ was mere embroidery of legitimate country themes with a liberal dose of pure superstition and blatant ignorance. For example, book IV of Virgil’s Georgics,  where one comes across a terrible poem which includes instructions for ‘creating’ bees.

This process according to Virgil (who again ‘borrows’ and enlarges on an old Greek superstition which may have originated with Meleager) requires that a two year old bull be suffocated to death, and its carcass be shut up in some ‘constricted place’ , and allowed to rot. Virgil asserts that bees are then formed from this unimaginable mass of putrefaction. Virgil the ‘husbandman’ is completely unable to tell the difference between maggots and bee larvae, or meat-wasps from bees.

Far from being an agriculturist, Virgil was the owner of slave-run farms, which put out of business  – which is to say denied a living –  to the many  much smaller holdings which were the sole livelihood of men such as Symilus.  Virgil was to the  small farmer what Wal-Mart is to the corner grocery and drug-store.   Though of an appearance that was described as ‘rustic’, he was neither robust nor prepossessing in appearance.  Like another over-rated fixture of western literature, Hamlet, Virgil was  not only “fat and short of breath,” but he suffered from dyspepsia and haemorrhoids as well.

When he died at the age of 51, Virgil left instructions In his will for his writings to be burned, and for this we must give him credit. But Emperor Augustus had paid far too much money and waited far too long for his imperial commission to permit it to simply go up in flames. So Virgil’s output of one line per day was quickly put together, and the Aeneid with its weight of errors came to become required fare for the generations of scholars from the time of Augustus, when a quickly manufactured pedigree was an urgent necessity for aspiring Rome, to the scholars of Church-supported western university, who became the natural heirs to the revisionist medieval writers who mined the Latin ‘classics’ in order to find in them whatever would support the requirements of holy mother church.

Virgil seized his main chance when Augustus’  imperial ambitions came to coincide neatly with his own.  Several centuries later, in the middle-ages, when the church itself had been safely  ‘rendered unto Caesar’, which is to say the pope, the dehumanising mockery of state-run religion combined with state -sponsored ‘poetry’, formed the unholy alliance that has  come to be the curse of our literary and spiritual inheritance.




Iam nox hibernas bis quinque peregerat horas
excubitorque diem cantu praedixerat ales,
Simylus exigui cultor cum rusticus agri
tristia venturae metuens ieiunia lucis
membra levat vili sensim demissa grabato
sollicitaque manu tenebras explorat inertes
vestigatque focum, laesus quem denique sensit.
Parvolus exusto remanebat stipite fomes
et cinis obductae celabat lumina prunae.
Admovet his pronam summissa fronte lucernam
et producit acu stuppas umore carentis
excitat et crebris languentem flatibus ignem.
Tandem concepto, sed vix, fulgore recedit
oppositaque manu lumen defendit ab aura
et reserat clausae quae pervidet ostia clavis.
Fusus erat terra frumenti pauper acervos:
hinc sibi depromit quantum mensura patebat,
quae bis in octonas excurrit pondere libras.
Inde abit assistitque molae parvaque tabella,
quam fixam paries illos servabat in usus,
lumina fida locat; geminos tunc veste lacertos
liberat et cinctus villosae tergore caprae
pervertit cauda silices gremiumque molarum.
Advocat inde manus operi partitus utrique:
laeva ministerio, dextra est intenta labori.
Haec rotat adsiduom gyris et concitat orbem
(tunsa Ceres silicum rapido decurrit ab ictu)
interdum fessae succedit laeva sorori
alternatque vices. Modo rustica carmina cantat
agrestique suom solatur voce laborem,
interdum clamat Scybalen (erat unica custos,
Afra genus, tota patriam testante figura,
torta comam labroque tumens et fusca colore,
pectore lata, iacens mammis, compressior alvo,
cruribus exilis, spatiosa prodiga planta)
hanc vocat atque arsura focis imponere ligna
imperat et flamma gelidos adolere liquores.
Postquam implevit opus iustum versatile finem,
transfert inde manu fusas in cribra farinas
et quatit ac remanent summa purgamina dorso.
Subsidit sincera foraminibusque liquatur
emundata Ceres. Levi tum protinus illam
componit tabula, tepidas super ingerit undas
contrahit admixtos nunc fontes atque farinas,
transversat durata manu liquidoque coacto,
interdum grumos spargit sale. Iamque subactum
levat opus palmisque suom dilatat in orbem
et notat impressis aequo discrimine quadris.
Infert ince foco (Scybale mundaverat aptum
ante locum) testisque tegit, super aggerat ignis.
Dumque suas peragit Volcanus Vestaque partes,
Simylus interea vacua non cessat in hora,
verum aliam sibi quaerit opem neu sola palato
sit non grata Ceres, quas iungat comparat escas.
Non illi suspensa focum carnaria iuxta,
durati sale terga suis truncique vacabant,
traiectus medium sparto sed caseus orbem
et vetus adstricti fascis pendebat anethi:
ergo aliam molitur opem sibi providus aeris.
Hortus erat iunctus casulae, quem vimina pauca
et calamo rediviva levi muniebat harundo,
exiguo spatio, variis sed fertilis herbis.
Nil illi deerat ,quod pauperis exigit usus:
interdum locuples a paupere plura petebat.
Nec sumptus erat ullis, sed regula curae:
si quando vacuom casula pluviaeve tenebant
festave lux, si forte labor cessabat aratri,
horti opus illud erat. Varias disponere plantas
norat et occultae committere semina terrae
vicinosque apte circa summittere rivos.
Hic holus, hic late fundentes bracchia betae
fecundusque rumex malvaeque inulaeque virebant,
hic siser et nomen capiti debentia porra
grataque nobilium requies lactuca ciborum
……….crescitque in acumina radix
et gravis in latum dimissa cucurbita ventrem.
Verum hic non domini (quis enim contractior illo?),
sed populi proventus erat, nonisque diebus
venalis umero fasces portabat ad urbem:
inde domum cervice levis, gravis aere redibat
vix umquam urbani comitatus merce macelli.
Caepa rubens sectique famem domat area porri
quaeque trahunt acri voltus nasturtia morsu
intibaque et venerem revocans eruca morantem.
Tunc quoque tale aliquid meditans intraverat hortum.
Ac primum, leviter digitis tellure refossa,
quattuor educit cum spissis alia fibris,
inde comas apii gracilis rutamque rigentem
vellit et exiguo coriandra trementia filo.
Haec ubi collegit, laetum consedit ad ignem
et clara famulam poscit mortaria voce.
Singula tum capitum nodoso corpore nudat
et summis spoliat coriis contemptaque passim
spargit humi atque abicit. Servatum germine bulbum
tinguit aqua lapidisque cavom demittit in orbem.
His salis inspargit micas, sale durus adeso
caseus adicitur, dictas super ingerit herbas
et laeva vestem saetosa sub inguina fulcit:
dextera pistillo primum flagrantia mollit
alia, tum pariter mixto terit omnia suco.
It manus in gyrum: paulatim singula vires
deperdunt proprias; color est e pluribus unus,
nec totus viridis, quia lactea frusta repugnant,
nec de lacte nitens, quia tot variatur ab herbis.
Saepe viri nares acer iaculatur apertas
spiritus et simo damnat sua prandia voltu,
saepe manu summa lacrimantia lumina terget
immeritoque furens dicit convicia fumo.
Procedebat opus nec iam salebrosus ut ante
sed gravior lentos ibat pistillus in orbis.
Ergo Palladii guttas instillat olivi
exiguique super vires infundit aceti
atque iterum commiscet opus mixtumque retractat.
Tum demum digitis mortaria tota duobus
circuit inque globum distantia contrahit unum,
constet ut effecti species nomenque moreti.
Eruit interea Scybale quoque sedula panem,
quem laetus recipit manibus, pulsoque timore
iam famis inque diem securus Simylus illam
ambit crura ocreis paribus tectusque galero
sub iuga parentis cogit lorata iuvencos
atque agit in segetes et terrae condit aratrum.

Read Full Post »

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (January 29th 1860 - July 15th 1904)















THE twilight of evening. Big flakes of wet snow are whirling lazily about the street lamps, which have just been lighted, and lying in a thin soft layer on roofs, horses’ backs, shoulders, caps. Iona Potapov, the sledge-driver, is all white like a ghost. He sits on the box without stirring, bent as double as the living body can be bent. If a regular snowdrift fell on him it seems as though even then he would not think it necessary to shake it off. . . . His little mare is white and motionless too. Her stillness, the angularity of her lines, and the stick-like straightness of her legs make her look like a halfpenny gingerbread horse. She is probably lost in thought. Anyone who has been torn away from the plough, from the familiar gray landscapes, and cast into this slough, full of monstrous lights, of unceasing uproar and hurrying people, is bound to think.

It is a long time since Iona and his nag have budged. They came out of the yard before dinnertime and not a single fare yet. But now the shades of evening are falling on the town. The pale light of the street lamps changes to a vivid color, and the bustle of the street grows noisier.

“Sledge to Vyborgskaya!” Iona hears. “Sledge!”

Iona starts, and through his snow-plastered eyelashes sees an officer in a military overcoat with a hood over his head.

“To Vyborgskaya,” repeats the officer. “Are you asleep? To Vyborgskaya!”

In token of assent Iona gives a tug at the reins which sends cakes of snow flying from the horse’s back and
shoulders. The officer gets into the sledge. The sledge-driver clicks to the horse, cranes his neck like a swan, rises in his seat, and more from habit than necessity brandishes his whip. The mare cranes her neck, too, crooks her stick-like legs, and hesitatingly sets off. . . .

“Where are you shoving, you devil?” Iona immediately hears shouts from the dark mass shifting to and fro before him. “Where the devil are you going? Keep to the r-right!”

“You don’t know how to drive! Keep to the right,” says the officer angrily.

A coachman driving a carriage swears at him; a pedestrian crossing the road and brushing the horse’s nose with his shoulder looks at him angrily and shakes the snow off his sleeve. Iona fidgets on the box as though he were sitting on thorns, jerks his elbows, and turns his eyes about like one possessed as though he did not know where he was or why he was there.

“What rascals they all are!” says the officer jocosely. “They are simply doing their best to run up against you or fall under the horse’s feet. They must be doing it on purpose.”

Iona looks as his fare and moves his lips. . . . Apparently he means to say something, but nothing comes but a sniff.

“What?” inquires the officer.

Iona gives a wry smile, and straining his throat, brings out huskily: “My son . . . er . . . my son died this week, sir.”

“H’m! What did he die of?”

Iona turns his whole body round to his fare, and says:

“Who can tell! It must have been from fever. . . . He lay three days in the hospital and then he died. . . . God’s will.”

“Turn round, you devil!” comes out of the darkness. “Have you gone cracked, you old dog? Look where you are going!”

“Drive on! drive on! . . .” says the officer. “We shan’t get there till to-morrow going on like this. Hurry up!”

The sledge-driver cranes his neck again, rises in his seat, and with heavy grace swings his whip. Several times he looks round at the officer, but the latter keeps his eyes shut and is apparently disinclined to listen. Putting his fare down at Vyborgskaya, Iona stops by a restaurant, and again sits huddled up on the box. . . . Again the wet snow paints him and his horse white. One hour passes, and then another. . . .

Three young men, two tall and thin, one short and hunchbacked, come up, railing at each other and loudly stamping on the pavement with their goloshes.

“Cabby, to the Police Bridge!” the hunchback cries in a cracked voice. “The three of us, . . . twenty kopecks!”

Iona tugs at the reins and clicks to his horse. Twenty kopecks is not a fair price, but he has no thoughts for that. Whether it is a rouble or whether it is five kopecks does not matter to him now so long as he has a fare. . . . The three young men, shoving each other and using bad language, go up to the sledge, and all three try to sit down at once. The question remains to be settled: Which are to sit down and which one is to stand? After a long altercation, ill-temper, and abuse, they come to the conclusion that the hunchback must stand because he is the shortest.

“Well, drive on,” says the hunchback in his cracked voice, settling himself and breathing down Iona’s neck. “Cut along! What a cap you’ve got, my friend! You wouldn’t find a worse one in all Petersburg. . . .”

“He-he! . . . he-he! . . .” laughs Iona. “It’s nothing to boast of!”

“Well, then, nothing to boast of, drive on! Are you going to drive like this all the way? Eh? Shall I give you one in the neck?”

“My head aches,” says one of the tall ones. “At the Dukmasovs’ yesterday Vaska and I drank four bottles of brandy between us.”

“I can’t make out why you talk such stuff,” says the other tall one angrily. “You lie like a brute.”

“Strike me dead, it’s the truth! . . .”

“It’s about as true as that a louse coughs.”

“He-he!” grins Iona. “Me-er-ry gentlemen!”

“Tfoo! the devil take you!” cries the hunchback indignantly. “Will you get on, you old plague, or won’t you? Is that the way to drive? Give her one with the whip. Hang it all, give it her well.”

Iona feels behind his back the jolting person and quivering voice of the hunchback. He hears abuse addressed to him, he sees people, and the feeling of loneliness begins little by little to be less heavy on his heart. The hunchback swears at him, till he chokes over some elaborately whimsical string of epithets and is overpowered by his cough. His tall companions begin talking of a certain Nadyezhda Petrovna. Iona looks round at them. Waiting till there is a brief pause, he looks round once more and says:

“This week . . . er. . . my. . . er. . . son died!”

“We shall all die, . . .” says the hunchback with a sigh, wiping his lips after coughing. “Come, drive on! drive on! My friends, I simply cannot stand crawling like this! When will he get us there?”

“Well, you give him a little encouragement . . . one in the neck!”

“Do you hear, you old plague? I’ll make you smart. If one stands on ceremony with fellows like you one may as well walk. Do you hear, you old dragon? Or don’t you care a hang what we say? ”

And Iona hears rather than feels a slap on the back of his neck.

“He-he! . . . ” he laughs. “Merry gentlemen . . . . God give you health!”

“Cabman, are you married?” asks one of the tall ones.

“I? He he! Me-er-ry gentlemen. The only wife for me now is the damp earth. . . . He-ho-ho!. . . .The grave that is! . . . Here my son’s dead and I am alive. . . . It’s a strange thing, death has come in at the wrong door. . . . Instead of coming for me it went for my son. . . .”

And Iona turns round to tell them how his son died, but at that point the hunchback gives a faint sigh and announces that, thank God! they have arrived at last. After taking his twenty kopecks, Iona gazes for a long while after the revelers, who disappear into a dark entry. Again he is alone and again there is silence for him. . . . The misery which has been for a brief space eased comes back again and tears his heart more cruelly than ever. With a look of anxiety and suffering Iona’s eyes stray restlessly among the crowds moving to and fro on both sides of the street: can he not find among those thousands someone who will listen to him? But the crowds flit by heedless of him and his misery. . . . His misery is immense, beyond all bounds. If Iona’s heart were to burst and his misery to flow out, it would flood the whole world, it seems, but yet it is not seen. It has found a hiding-place in such an insignificant shell that one would not have found it with a candle by daylight. . . .

Iona sees a house-porter with a parcel and makes up his mind to address him.

“What time will it be, friend?” he asks.

“Going on for ten. . . . Why have you stopped here? Drive on!”

Iona drives a few paces away, bends himself double, and gives himself up to his misery. He feels it is no good to appeal to people. But before five minutes have passed he draws himself up, shakes his head as though he feels a sharp pain, and tugs at the reins. . . . He can bear it no longer.

“Back to the yard!” he thinks. “To the yard!” And his little mare, as though she knew his thoughts, falls to trotting. An hour and a half later Iona is sitting by a big dirty stove. On the stove, on the floor, and on the benches are people snoring. The air is full of smells and stuffiness. Iona looks at the sleeping figures, scratches himself, and regrets that he has come home so early. . . .

“I have not earned enough to pay for the oats, even,” he thinks. “That’s why I am so miserable. A man who knows how to do his work, . . . who has had enough to eat, and whose horse has had enough to eat, is always at ease. . . .”

In one of the corners a young cabman gets up, clears his throat sleepily, and makes for the water-bucket.

“Want a drink?” Iona asks him.

“Seems so.”

“May it do you good. . . . But my son is dead, mate. . . . Do you hear? This week in the hospital. . . . It’s a queer business. . . .”

Iona looks to see the effect produced by his words, but he sees nothing. The young man has covered his head over and is already asleep. The old man sighs and scratches himself. . . . Just as the young man had been thirsty for water, he thirsts for speech. His son will soon have been dead a week, and he has not really talked to anybody yet . . . . He wants to talk of it properly, with deliberation. . . . He wants to tell how his son was taken ill, how he suffered, what he said before he died, how he died. . . . He wants to describe the funeral, and how he went to the hospital to get his son’s clothes. He still has his daughter Anisya in the country. . . . And he wants to talk about her too. . . . Yes, he has plenty to talk about now. His listener ought to sigh and exclaim and lament. . . . It would be even better to talk to women. Though they are silly creatures, they blubber at the first word.

“Let’s go out and have a look at the mare,” Iona thinks. “There is always time for sleep. . . . You’ll have sleep enough, no fear. . . .”

He puts on his coat and goes into the stables where his mare is standing. He thinks about oats, about hay, about the weather. . . . He cannot think about his son when he is alone. . . . To talk about him with someone is possible, but to think of him and picture him is insufferable anguish. . . .

“Are you munching?” Iona asks his mare, seeing her shining eyes. “There, munch away, munch away. . . . Since we have not earned enough for oats, we will eat hay. . . . Yes, . . . I have grown too old to drive. . . . My son ought to be driving, not I. . . . He was a real cabman. . . . He ought to have lived. . . .”

Iona is silent for a while, and then he goes on:

“That’s how it is, old girl. . . . Kuzma Ionitch is gone. . . . He said good-by to me. . . . He went and died for no reason. . . . Now, suppose you had a little colt, and you were own mother to that little colt. . . . And all at once that same little colt went and died. . . . You’d be sorry, wouldn’t you? . . .”

The little mare munches, listens, and breathes on her master’s hands. Iona is carried away and tells her all about it.



There is nothing one can say in order to enlarge upon a Chekhov short-story. It speaks for itself and says everything that can possibly be said about its subject. We can only justly speak about the the rock-hard grain of insight he has embedded in the heart of his account.  The unblinking eye Chekhov casts upon human nature is coldly dispassionate, even as he urges us to feel compassion.

‘Misery’ is about a man whose heart is on the verge of crumbling into grief, but it is a grief which cannot be eased by sharing: Not because it cannot be spoken, but  because there is simply no one in his whole world who will give him an ear, even for a moment.

The callousness and self-centredness  Iona the cabman encounters in his passengers, so busy with their useless comings and goings, makes them oblivious to his pitiful situation. Somehow, the lack of awareness and feeling that blinds them to all but the most single-minded focus on fulfilling their trivial needs swamps their ability to be humane in the slightest of ways. Iona’s offer of a drink of water from the common pail to one of the lodgers in his flophouse fails to engage the young man in the conversation Iona longs to have, because the lodger is too exhausted himself to stay awake long enough to listen: exhaustion  is just another type of incapacity.

Iona too is oblivious in his own way. At the careless bidding of his oafish passengers, he  unhesitatingly brandishes his whip at his hard-working little mare, and it doesn’t seem to worry him that at the close of an exhausting day of pulling a hack in the bitter cold of a Russian winter, she goes unfed but for a little hay.

He knows he could confide in his daughter Anisya who lives in the country, but deigns not to,  perhaps because she is unavailable at the time, but also perhaps because he finds women to be too foolish, and their emotions to be merely reflexive. These things – which the ruthless Chekhovian eye takes in, make it difficult for me to summon up the empathy and compassion I know I am being required to feel.

And that of course is something which could be construed as ‘original sin’ in us humans. It does not come naturally to most of us to care about others. We too keep missing the moment of potential connection, for any number of reasons – trivial or otherwise – or merely because of our unconscious habit.

Katherine Mansfield was a fervent admirer of  Chekhov in general, but of this story in particular, and it is easy to see why.  Like many of her own stories, it unfolds rapidly –  over a single day – in this case a single evening. Chekhov differs from Mansfield in that his prose style has more weight – more gravity – and his narrative possesses more external and chronological order. On the other hand, one finds that Mansfield’s stories are more dominated by imagistic connections – we experience moments as being connected by perception rather than thoughts.

This is a shift that separates Mansfield’s ‘Modernist’ writing from all its predecessors. It is strictly a female innovation, though it was enthusiastically adopted by men such as James Joyce. One also feels that Mansfield observes and infers, but does not judge or conclude, whereas Chekhov does both, or at least he leads us to the edge of the precipice of judgement so forcefully that our own momentum carries us beyond it.

When we cast an historical eye backwards on the crushing exigencies of Iona’s life, events such as the Russian Revolution make much more sense – and with greater immediacy – than the most acute political analysis ever could. Chekhov sharply sketches the just complaints of one class against another and crystalises them with brutal economy.

When my mind inevitably turns to speculations about the fate of Iona and his little mare, the picture I see turns dismayingly from grey to black. Iona will whip her, and over-work her, and soon she will be on the brink of death  of starvation and exhaustion. He will then escort her to the knacker’s yard, kiss her goodbye, and sell her  for a few kopeks.  Then he will make his way to the home of his daughter, and she will have to  take him in, as the couple had to in Robert Frost’s  poem ‘The Death of the Hired Man’. Home usually turns out to be any place of last resort.  Like his similarly unlucky  biblical namesake, Iona’s time spent in the city, swallowed in the belly of leviathan, is likely to be returned by fate to the place where he is destined to be.  We can hope that he will end his days working with his daugher on the farm he used to plough with his little white mare.

Chekhov died of tuberculosis in 1904 at the age of 44 – sixteen years before the Russian  Revolution.  He lived ten years longer than Mansfield, (who died of the same disease when she was 34,) and left behind a much larger body of work than she was able to.  But in a sense, to me at least, Chekhov’s writing is ‘more of the same’.  One reads his story as a listener, and not as an experiencer.  Events are ‘observed’ from in front of the eyes, and not behind them, and  that, to my mind, is one of the essential difference between Chekhov and Mansfield.

Read Full Post »

Three more irresistible tracks…..

Bill Evans (August 16th 1929 - September 15th 1988)














Monica Zetterlund (September 20th 1937-May 5th 2005)














Monica sings ‘I’m so lucky to be Me’





Chet Baker (December 23rd 1929-May 13th 1988)










Read Full Post »

Bill Evans ( August 16th 1929 - September 15th 1980)















Bill could make cool smoulder – what is there left to say about him? His music speaks for him. He did more with less – his brilliance was always deep and un-superficial, and you already had to be turned a little inward in order to ‘get’ him.  He had incredible style – careful, thoughtful , refined, measured and spell-binding are the words that come to mind when I think of Bill. He could handle anything from a Pavane of Fauré to the serial tonality of a  Schoenberg scale.



If any further proof of Bill’s brilliance is needed here it is.
I don’t know anyone else who could have coaxed this much melodic coherence out of potential atonality.



























Some great sites for information about the late great Bill Evans:






































Read Full Post »

Monica Zetterlund (September 20th 1937 - May 12th 2005)























It doesn’t get any cooler than this
Bill’s understated piano,
Monica’s natural breath-infused notes, as she sings with a cigarette smouldering between her fingers….
Impeccable timing –

Timeless and ageless cool.

Zetterlund was an incredible beauty, with a lyrical and natural voice which was never forced. The collaboration with Bill Evans was a pure miracle and ‘Waltz for Debby’ is one of those great classics of cool.
There are times when I wish that the past,  even when it is lost, is not lost forever, and this is a small effort to bring it back.




Waltz for Debby


In her own sweet world
Populated by dolls and clowns
and a prince and a big purple bear.



Lives my favorite girl,
unaware of the worried frowns
that we weary grown ups all wear.



In the sun she dances to silent music,
songs that are spun of gold
somewhere in her own little head.



One day all too soon
she’ll grow up and she’ll leave her dolls
and her prince and her silly old bear.



When she goes they will cry
as she whispers “Good-bye.”
They will miss her I fear



but then so will I.




Monica’s Vals

Enkel, vacker, öm
Är min vals melodi
min vals fantasi
En sång i en dröm.
Sakta morgon ljus
strömmar över vårt fönster, ritar ett mönster på alla hus
Just den dag, den vackra dag jag lärde mig säga vi
kom den till världen min vals melodi
Enkel, Vacker, öm
Och den påminner mig om hundratals dar som jag varit med dig
Både vinter och vår och i höst och igår
Våra dagar är bara för korta, plötsligen ringer min klocka
Upp med dig klockan är åtta
Väldig, vänlig, stark
Kommer solen med dagen den vackra staden badar i ljus
Väldig, vänlig, stark har du visat mig världen
för mig så är den vacker och ljus
På oss två väntar miljoner dagar
Åh här är vi och världen sjunger min vals melodi
Enkel, vacker, öm
valsen påminner mig om hundratals dar som jag varit med dig
Både vinter och vår, och i höst och igår
Och alla dagar som kommer, Nu är det sommar i tusen år.


Lyrics/Poem by Beppe Wolgers.


Monica’s Waltz.

Simple, beautiful, tender

is my waltz melody

my waltz fantasy

a song in a dream.

Slow morning light

streaming above our window, drawing a pattern on every house.

That very day, that beautiful day when I learned to say “we”

it came to the world, my waltz melody

simple, beautiful, tender

and it reminds me of the hundreds of days I have spent with you
both winter and spring, and in autumn and yesterday.

Our days are just too short; suddenly my clock rings

Up you go, it’s eight o’clock

Mighty, kind, strong

the sun arrives with the day; the beautiful town is bathed in light

Mighty, kind, strong, you have shown me the world

For me, it is beautiful and bright.

Millions of days are waiting for us.

Oh, here we are and the world is singing my waltz melody.

Simple, beautiful, tender

The waltz reminds me of the hundreds of days I have spent with you

Both winter and spring, and in autumn and yesterday

and all the days to come. Now it is summer for a thousand years.


Translation from  the Swedish is kind courtesy of Mira Parkfelt.















Here is an interesting cut-and paste link for an article about the Evans/Zetterlund collaboration.









And another article about Zetterlund:










This is the link to double click  for the Youtube upload of Zetterlund’s ‘Waltz for Debby’ performance With the Bill Evans Trio.

Regrettably the embedding for the upload was disabled, so you will have to watch it directly on Youtube where you cannot follow the lyrics.


Read Full Post »

Chet Baker (December 23rd 1929 - May 13th 1988)




























Chet’s interpretation gives Bruno Brighetti’s timeless composition the treatment. A beautiful song with spare and piercing lyrics: Nothing wasted here, and every note is made to count just as every word in the song.

The first faltering notes come after almost seeming to have missed their cue – and with that strange yet familiar reverberation of the hollow sound of an exhaled breath passing over the lip of a bottle – or the sound of the wind that comes with – well – less of an echo than the close company of its own sound shadow.

If thoughts made sounds when they emerged out of nowhere – perhaps this is the sound they might make.

When the beauty of summer is too much to bear, and we long for its passing – this is the sound we will recognise as being the sound of the passing of unsaid words.






Sei calda come i baci che ho perduto

Sei piena di un amore che è passato

Che il cuore mio vorrebbe cancellare


Il sole che ogni giorno ci scaldava

Che splendidi tramonti dipingeva

Adesso brucia solo con furore

Tornerà un altro inverno

Cadranno mille pètali di rose

La neve coprirà tutte le cose

E forse un po’ di pace tornerà


Che ha dato il suo profumo ad ogni fiore

L’ estate che ha creato il nostro amore

Per farmi poi morire di dolore




You are as hot as the kisses, that I have lost

You are filled with a love, that is over

That my heart would like to erase


The sun, that warmed us every day

That painted beautiful sunsets

Now only burns with fury

There will come another winter

Thousands of rose petals will fall

The snow will cover all

And perhaps a little peace will return


That gave its perfume to every flower

The summer, that created our love

To let me now die of pain








About the song….



This is the URL for a great blog featuring lots of Chet Baker.


Read Full Post »

















That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
Fra Pandolf chanced to say “Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat”: such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—(which I have not)—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
—E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!









If you cut and paste this link, it will take you to a recording of Richard Howard’s reading of Browning’s poem.



Robert Browning (7th May 1812 - 12th December 1889)

This is another of Robert Browning’s psychological masterpieces. Browning was famous for his employment of the ‘interior monologue’  in his poetry, something that was later to evolve,  in its next incarnation into that centrepiece of modernist writing  –  the style we now know as ‘Stream of Consciousness’.  Browning, as a disciplined Victorian, stayed on topic, and did not exactly ‘stream’, but, nevertheless, this poem clearly consists of an uninterrupted stream of thought.

Though the Duke’s comments are ostensibly addressed to an  emissary of some noble house with which he is hoping to make yet another matrimonial alliance with a young girl, he may just as well be talking to himself, as his erstwhile listener – who I daresay may be increasingly overcome by horror –  deigns not  to interrupt.

Virginia Woolf gets the predominant credit for elevating the Stream of Consciousness technique to its polished perfection, but it was Dorothy Richardson – whose name has now fallen into a literary oubliette – who first came up with the concept, and she called it ‘Interior Monologue’, rather than the rather more inflated title claimed for it today.  The lives of  Browning and Katherine Mansfield (the first really literary exponent of the Stream of Consciousness style) did overlap, in the sense that Mansfield was an infant of fourteen months when Browning died in 1889.

Woolf was sufficiently acquainted with Browning’s wife Elizabeth Barrett, to have observed in her a trait she adopted and made her own, that of standing up for her literary convictions. In yet another distant twist, Woolf”s grand-aunt, Julia Margaret Cameron, who was a renowned early pioneer of photography, took Robert Brownings photograph.

The Brownings were among the many literary eminences who visited Little Holland House, the London home of Cameron’s aunt and uncle the Princeps. – so

Robert Browning, in a photograph taken by Julia Margaret Cameron.

there are several threads – frayed and old thought they may be – connecting Woolf to the Brownings.

Despite his being a distant ancestral link to the Modernists, Browning was much  closer to Shakespeare in his mood and perspective. We cannot avoid being rather queasily reminded of Othello when we listen to the Duke’s arrogant peroration  –  but this is less a pure Othello, than a composite of Othello and the villainous Iago, with the balance tipping decisively in the direction of the latter.

The Duke is curiously bloodless – his character is chillingly infused with malice, and with the ice-water that ran through Iago’s veins.  Othello loved Desdemona, and his jealousy was rooted in his twisted wish to be the sole possessor of her love. The Duke, however, only wishes to be the sole possessor of his Duchess’ attention, which is something that much more pertains to pomposity and presumption.

I remember how I felt when I first read this poem as a young girl: How angry and how offended, and my ire was turned on Browning for what I thought was his endorsement of the Duke.  How wrong I was, and how completely ignorant of Browning’s clever and subtle devising.  When I look back, I see my then indignation  as proof of Browning’s assured mastery at delineating character.

The Duke is so perfectly revealed as a man given over completely to venality and vileness – a Machiavellian schemer – and the Duchess an innocent and lovely young girl, that they leave no room for any reaction in us but the polarised one that no doubt Browning himself intended.

I am not unaware of the irony that emerges in my choice of the portrait of Marie de Medici to illustrate Browning’s Duchess. Marie’s familial antecedents were indeed strongly linked to Niccolò Machiavelli, whose teachings the Duke might well have studied. However,  Marie, who married a man 20 years her senior, King Henry IV of France, unlike the Duchess, outlived her husband by 32 years, and died at the age of 69. It is also a largely unrecognised fact that she was the patron of Nostradamus, a personage who far eclipsed her in fame.

Jean Brodie in Muriel Spark’s  The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie told her ‘girls’  that Marmalade was a confiture devised by the the royal chef from the orangeries of Marie de Medici, when Marie fell ill as a young bride, the word marmalade being derived from the words Marie-malade – but that little bit of inspired  – and quite spurious – myth-making – was Spark’s delicate nod to the fatuously ridiculous character of Miss Jean Brodie.

But to return from all these distracting tangents, Richard Howard’s reading of this poem, despite the detriment of his American accent, does justice to the poem’s frequent use of enjambment, and thoroughly emphasises  the character of the splenetically prideful and grasping old Duke, as foolish as Lear but with none of Lear’s ability to recognise his own deeply embedded defects.

We are left with the  maddening feeling that it is precisely the Duke’s irremediably evil nature which will forever shield him from the kind of devastation and remorse which would doubtless overtake him were his conscience to ever awaken. At the end of the poem we leave knowing that he will never realise  that it was  his diabolical egotism and twisted mind, which led him to  commit a terrible wrong, and foolishly destroy the life of the innocent young girl who had loved him.

Read Full Post »

Katherine Mansfield (October 14th 1822 - January 9th 1923)
















Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry.













Journal entry  October 14th 1922.


My spirit is nearly dead. My spring of life is so starved that it’s just not dry. Nearly all my improved health is pretense  –  acting. What does it amount to? Can I walk? Only creep. Can I do anything with my hands or body? Nothing at all, I am absolutely hopelessly invalid. What is my life? It is the existence of a parasite. And five years have passed now, and I am in straiter bonds than ever.














Therefore if the Grand Lama of Tibet promised to help you – how can you hesitate? Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.
True, Chekhov didn’t. Yes, but Chekhov died. And let us be honest. How much do we know of Chekhov from his letters? Was that all? Of course not. Don’t you suppose he had a whole longing life of which there is hardly a word? Then read the final letters. He has given up hope. If you de-sentimentalise those final letters they are terrible. There is no more Chekhov. Illness has swallowed him. 

But perhaps to people who are not ill, all this is nonsense. They have never travelled this road. How can they see where I am? All the more reason to go boldly forward alone. Life is not simple. In spite of all we say about the mystery of Life when we get down to it we want to treat it as though it were a child’s tale….
Now Katherine, what do you mean by health ?And what do you want it for?
Answer: By health I mean the power to live a full, adult, living, breathing life in close contact with what I love – the earth and the wonders thereof  – the sea – the sun. All that we mean when we speak of the external world. I want to enter into it, to be a part of it, to live in it. to learn from it, to lose all that is superficial and acquired in me and to become a conscious, direct human being, I want by understanding myself, to understand others, I want to be al that I am capable of becoming so that I may be( and here I have stopped and waited and waited and it’s no good – there’s only one phrase that will do) a child of the sun. About helping others m about carrying a light and so on it seems false to say a single word. Let it he that. A child of the sun. 
Then I want to work. At what? I want to live that I work with my hands and my feeling and my brain. I want a garden,a small house, grass, animals, books, pictures, music. And out of this the expression of this, I want to be writing.  (Though I may write about cabmen. That’s no matter.)
But warm, eager, living life – to be rooted in life – to learn, to desire to know, to feel, to think, to act. That is what I want. And nothing less. That is what I must try for.
















These two journal entries, written on what was to be Mansfield’s 34th birthday, and her last, encapsulate her whole

Mansfield in Menton France in 1921

life. She begins by acknowledging her low spirits, her feeling of utter debilitation. Then she seems to pull herself together and reach deep within herself for the sense of resolution which is the only thing that she knows can keep her alive. She defines her needs, and itemises them, and the list which seems so small and modest, is in fact enormous, extensive, and world-encompassing. 
It would seem by defining and enumerating that she is taking a stand. This is her manifesto – it contains all her hopes, her loves, and aspirations.  It also contains her fears. The word for her illness – consumption or t.b – is conspicuously absent – and she speaks only of Cheknov having it, never mentioning herself. 
The fear of being devoured by this illness is crushingly real, because the illness itself was crushingly real, and had dominated her life for several years. Katherine must have known she was dying, and yet, she would not allow herself to acknowledge that fact. She desperately wants to face the truth, and she desperately wants to live, but if she does one she feels that she cannot do the other.

Mansfield was breathtakingly close to death. she would only live another eleven weeks. During that late fall and winter in Fontainbleau, in her cold, and frequently unheated little room, (in “…the workers quarters…. bare boards – a scrubbed table for the jug and basin etc…. windows… icy cold”)  the sun and its warmth had been withdrawn from her. When she had her fatal lung haemorrhage on the night of January 9th, and mere moments before her death, her feckless husband John Middleton Murray was shooed out of the room by the doctors who had been hurriedly summoned to her side. Murry who was living in England at the time, had neglected his wife and failed throughout his marriage to support her, either emotionally or financially. He had been sent for when it became apparent that her health was in a steep decline. After Mansfield’s death, Murry recalled, when he had been asked by the two attending doctors to leave the room, Mansfield’s eyes implored him not to leave:

But he obeyed the doctors and left the room.



Katherine Mansfield Rose: Wellington Botanic Garden, New Zealand.
















Now it is Loneliness who comes at night
Instead of Sleep, to sit beside my bed.
Like a tired child I lie and wait her tread,
I watch her softly blowing out the light.
Motionless sitting, neither left or right
She turns, and weary, weary droops her head.
She, too, is old; she, too, has fought the fight




So, with the laurel she is garlanded.

Through the sad dark the slowly ebbing tide
Breaks on a barren shore, unsatisfied.
A strange wind flows… then silence. I am fain
To turn to Loneliness, to take her hand,
Cling to her, waiting, till the barren land
Fills with the dreadful monotone of rain






Read Full Post »

Older Posts »