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Archive for October, 2011

Robert Browning

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ladies in the Campagnia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two in the Campagnia.

I wonder how you feel to-day
As I have felt since, hand in hand,
We sat down on the grass, to stray
In spirit better through the land,
This morn of Rome and May?

For me, I touched a thought, I know,
Has tantalized me many times,
(Like turns of thread the spiders throw
Mocking across our path) for rhymes
To catch at and let go.

Help me to hold it! First it left
The yellow fennel, run to seed
There, branching from the brickwork’s cleft,
Some old tomb’s ruin: yonder weed
Took up the floating weft,

Where one small orange cup amassed
Five beetles, -blind and green they grope
Among the honey meal: and last,
Everywhere on the grassy slope
O traced it. Hold it fast!

The champaign with its endless fleece
Of feathery grasses everywhere!
Silence and passion, joy and peace,
An everlasting wash of air-
Rome’s ghost since her decease.

Such life here, through such lengths of hours,
Such miracles performed in play,
Such primal naked forms of flowers,
Such letting nature have her way
While heaven looks from its towers!

How say you? Let us, O my dove,
Let us be unashamed of soul,
As earth lies bare to heaven above!
How is it under our control
To love or not to love?

I would that you were all to me,
You that are just so much, no more.
Nor yours nor mine, nor slave nor free!
Where does the fault lie? What the core
O’ the wound, since wound must be?

I would I could adopt your will,
See with your eyes, and set my heart
Beating by yours, and drink my fill
At your soul’s springs, – your part my part
In life, for good and ill.

No. I yearn upward, touch you close,
Then stand away. I kiss your cheek,
Catch your soul’s warmth, – I pluck the rose
And love it more than tongue can speak-
Then the good minute goes.

Already how am I so far
Our of that minute? Must I go
Still like the thistle-ball, no bar,
Onward, whenever light winds blow,
Fixed by no friendly star?

Just when I seemed about to learn!
Where is the thread now? Off again!
The Old trick! Only I discern-
Infinite passion, and the pain
Of finite hearts that yearn.

Robert Browning 1854

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two excellent cut-and-paste links with notes on this poem:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/jul/26/robert-browning-two-in-the-campagna

http://thereaderonline.co.uk/2008/05/05/featured-poem-two-in-the-campagna-robert-browning/

 

 

 

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

My very first brush with Robert Browning was in First Form English Literature class in 1966 at Methodist College, Colombo, Ceylon.  The upstairs classroom, adjoining the principal’s apartments, was hot in the blinding afternoon light which streamed in from the row of windows to our left. If any breeze at all entered our room, it was tinged with the slightly acrid odour of coal smoke from trains which came and went from the Kolpetty railway station to the west, which was just beyond the tennis court wall, and was sticky  with saltiness carried in from the sea which was  right next to the railway platform and tracks.

There we sat on our hard wooden chairs, at our wooden desks, rows of little school-girls in our white cotton school-uniforms and green ties, our attention transfixed on our twig-thin teacher in her pencil skirts and hair tied tightly back in a bun. Her nicotine-stained fingers – she was the only teacher in the whole school who smoked –  held up the book in front of her, and her pale blue eyes when they looked up from her reading would take in the whole class at a single glance. She didn’t walk – she strode –   she was thrilling different from all the other teachers, and quite unforgettable.  When we listened to her we were no longer in our hot little white-washed classroom, but transported to whichever far-away place we had allowed her animated voice to willingly carry us.

My wonderfully unique English teacher was Mrs. Rene Perera nee Caldera. The class erupted into gleeful giggles at Mrs. Perera’s spirited reading of Robert Browning’s poem ‘How They brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’, and the thrilling  triple galloping dactyls which excitingly echoed the sound of rapid hoof-beats. Mrs. Perera, now in her late eighties, God bless her, lives in Melbourne Australia, and I had the tremendous good fortune to see her again when I visited there a few years ago.

In 1889, Browning with Mr. Thomas Alva Edison, made a wax-cylinder recording of some lines from this poem, but even if Browning had not been too old to have remembered all the lines, I am sure he could not read it with nearly as well, and with as much infectious verve as Mrs. Perera.

When I was in my teens I came across another poem by Browning, ‘My Last Duchess’, which I hated with a passion for its cruelty and apparent misogynism. It escaped me then – as it no longer does – that far from being misogynistic, the poem was brilliantly ironic – something  I had been too ignorant to recognise and appreciate at the time. Now ‘My Last Duchess’ is one of my favourite poems, and one I admire for its deeply insightful portrait of of misunderstanding and jealousy.

‘Two in the Campagnia’ is another of Browning’s masterpieces.  In its twelve verses he simply and lucidly examines

Robert and Elizabeth

the question we ask ourselves even today –  what can – or can not – one know, about the person one loves. It is blessedly free of the cloying taint of  sentimentality which infected the work of many of Browning’s  fellow Victorians, including his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Though Robert’s far more intelligent work still remains regrettably obscure, Elizabeth is  beloved by many even to day for her famous “How do I love thee, let me count the ways” poem from Sonnets from the Portuguese.

The Brownings spent almost all their married life in Italy, and it was there that this particular poem was written. The Campagnia is the area, wild and marshy in Browning’s day, which surrounds Rome. When a friend and I drove around it a few years ago, it still appeared amazingly rural, and except for the occasional small flock of sheep, quite empty.

Browning was, like many good writers of poetry, an accomplished linguist, who was fluent in French, Italian, Latin and Greek.  Like so many other eminent intellects, (Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Giacomo Leopardi and others) he was privately and self-educated, benefiting from the huge library of  6000 books amassed by his father who worked for the Bank of England.

If Browning is known at all today, it is for the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street and the film of the same name, about his romance with Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s father did not approve of marriage, and forbade all his children to marry. This of course was the reason that Robert and Elizabeth eloped in 1846 when he was 34 years old and she was 40. Virginia Woolf wrote a novel about the Brownings told from the point of view of Elizabeth’s cocker spaniel Flush, aptly called Flush: A Biography.

During his lifetime, Browning’s work remained almost unknown, and very much unappreciated until he returned to England after Elizabeth’s death in 1861. Browning survived his wife by 28 years. He died in 1889, and was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Letter of Robert Browning to Elizabeth Barrett.

Excerpt from a love-letter of Robert to Elizabeth

January 10th, 1845
New Cross, Hatcham, Surrey
I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett, — and this is no off-hand complimentary letter that I shall write, –whatever else, no prompt matter-of-course recognition of your genius and there a graceful and natural end of the thing: since the day last week when I first read your poems, I quite laugh to remember how I have been turning again in my mind what I should be able to tell you of their effect upon me — for in the first flush of delight I though I would this once get out of my habit of purely passive enjoyment, when I do really enjoy, and thoroughly justify my admiration — perhaps even, as a loyal fellow-craftsman should, try and find fault and do you some little good to be proud of hereafter! — but nothing comes of it
all — so into me has it gone, and part of me has it become, this great living poetry of yours, not a flower of which but took root and grew … oh, how different that is from lying to be dried and pressed flat and prized highly and put in a book with a proper account at bottom, and shut up and put away … and the book called a ‘Flora’, besides! After all, I need not give up the thought of doing that, too, in time; because even now, talking with whoever is worthy, I can give reason for my faith in one and another excellence, the fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos and true new brave thought — but in this addressing myself to you, your
own self, and for the first time, my feeling rises altogher. I do, as I say, love these Books with all my heart — and I love you too: do you know I was once seeing you? Mr. Kenyon said to me one morning “would you like to see Miss Barrett?” — then he went to announce me, — then he returned … you were too unwell — and now it is years ago — and I feel as at some untorward passage in my travels — as if I had been close, so close, to some world’s-wonder in chapel
on crypt, … only a screen to push and I might have entered — but there was some slight … so it now seems … slight and just-sufficient bar to admission, and the half-opened door shut, and I went home my thousands of miles, and the sight was never to be!
Well, these Poems were to be — and this true thankful joy and pride with which I feel myself.

Yours ever faithfully
Robert Browning.

My Darling First Form English teacher Mrs. Rene Perera, in my cousin Hans' garden in Melbourne Australia Nov. 2008.

Mrs. Rene Perera. Goodnight, goodnight. R.I.P. November 22nd 2011

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Katherine Mansfield at the Villa Isola Bella at Menton.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What about a cauliflower?’ I said. ‘A cauliflower with white sauce.
‘But they are so dear, Madame, ‘ wailed Marie. ‘So dear. One little cauliflower for 2 fr.50. It’s robbery, it’s…’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Suddenly through the kitchen window I saw the moon. It was so marvelously beautiful that I walked out of the kitchen door, through the garden and leaned over the gate before I knew what I was doing. The cold bars of the gate stopped me. The moon was full, transparent. glittering. It hung over the sighing sea, I looked at it for a long time. Then I turned round. and the little house faced me – a little white house quivering with light. a house like a candle shining behind a feather of mimosa tree. I had utterly forgotten these things when I was ordering the dinner, I went back to the kitchen,
‘Let us have a cauliflower at any price, ‘ I said firmly.
And Marie muttered, bending over a pot – could she have understood? – ‘En effet _ the times are dangerous!’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Katherine Mansfield was born in Wellington New Zealand on October 14th 1

 

888. This journal entry was made in October of 1920 while Mansfield, aged 31, was living with Ida Baker, in Menton France, close to the Italian border.

This was a period during which Mansfield was able to do much of her of creative and critical writing. She left Menton in May of 1921 to go to Switzerland, and from there to the terrible unheated lodgings at the Gurdjieff institute in Fontainbleu, where she went in the final desperate search of a mystical cure. She was to die in that inhospitable climate on January 9th 1923, at the age of  34.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A man stands gazing at an ancient memorial in a forgotten cemetery. The memorial depicts a beautiful young  woman  – a woman who is possessed of the compelling and vanquishing kind of beauty which ravishes men’s hearts, as now it ravishes his own.  This woman possesses the striking  beauty, which on account of his physical deformity – he is only four and a half feet tall and a hunchback –  this particular man could never hope to claim.
But as he gazes at the face of the woman on the monument, he begins to stumble and fall under its spell. He is gripped by his need to reconcile the ageless and unfading loveliness etched in stone with the living being it represented, but also, disturbingly, with the changes wrought by death. He sees the woman as she is now – a jumble of bones hidden under the dirt of the grave – but his mind leads him away from this intolerable image to contemplate another,  far more ravishing – far more alluring….

The late afternoon light of the Campania, with its rich complement of  shadows falls about him and surrounds him, and  slowly, without his even noticing, the present gives way to a remote past. The light by which he now finds himself watching another scene unfolding, is the light of candles, soft and generous to the faces and arms of beautiful women.
He is seated in a corner away from the pools of light, but still surrounded by the murmuring waves of indistinct conversation and the rustling crepitations of silk gowns. He seems almost to melt into the shadows, this little man, in a well-worn blue coat, now refurbished to look somewhat less unfashionable than it recently did, holding the glass of wine which has warmed unnoticed in his hands.

When ‘she’ enters his line of sight, she is speaking to a man who has just approached her and kissed her hand. She is smiling, in a completely possessed awareness of her own presence, and the ruthless effect of her beauty on her guests, as they watch her shifting form move between the light and shadows. Her ungloved hands are pale and elegant, and touched with the occasional emphatic glint of gold on the ring finger. The guests at the soirée approach her one by one, as though summoned to a privileged audience, and each one first registers, then masks the reluctance of his displacement by the next. On this occasion, the woman’s uxorious husband has chosen this particular moment to give her a gift. He clasps a gold and garnet collar around her neck, and the stones catch the light and splash their deep effusive tint on her milky skin.

If the man watching silently in his corner were to speak, he might amuse and impress. He is after all, learned and clever. He is a classicist, a philologist, a writer and a poet whose work will be read and admired and analysed and exclaimed over in all the years following his death, more than  the work of any other Italian. He is Giacomo Leopardi – but he does not break his silence to speak. This is a life in which he has no active part.

Such is the kind of experience I think of as The Poetic Trance. While one is under its influence time melts away, and the present surrenders itself unresistingly to a condition unconstrained by time – and also by space. There is no way to describe this experience, except to say that in it one finds oneself enveloped, and yet one knows it for its intimate interiority. It is an almost dream-like state in which a poem  entirely confides itself in moods and sounds and images, untouched by words or reason. It just is in a way that a little resembles a waking dream, that compels the chattering mind to silence, and any effort to form words resembles the useless strivings of a sleeper to call out from the throes of a nightmare.

When I first read this poem, I felt as if the contents of another mind were being revealed to me, as that mind was itself being opened to yet another.  Leopardi is in effect seeing triple here. He is addressing three entities – ostensibly the monument, but then the relics, and finally, and most convincingly, the beautiful woman as she had been in life. I could see Leopardi weaving his uneven way among the mazes of old monuments with the slow sense of captivation coming over him as his gaze wandered over them.

These crowded monuments ever aspire to grandeur even as they age and fall to ruin, and they stubbornly memorialise the forgotten dead and exalt their grieving relatives – now also dead – and these in turn possess their own memorials – continuing in a succession of opulently displayed marbles. Notwithstanding the original  purpose of these structures, ostensibly to make an imposing public statement about grief and wealth, they manage also to express a more private anxiety having to do with the desire to be remembered. They are in a way a form of insurance against the real possibility – that people forget, and they, the eminent but voiceless dead, will in the end also be forgotten.

Amongst these powerful presences, and surrounded by the complexity of  the artifacts symbolising their high aspirations in life and obloquies of their death, of their high pomp and decaying skeletons, of erected reflections of languid female forms and vanished lushness, commemorating dead women, and their male equivalents suggestive of power and influence, times and places such as these could easily compel the mind to oscillate uneasily between vivid and confusing impressions of life and death. The involuntary roilings of emotions which connect both love and death – an association already well- established in Leopardi’s mind –  could have forced him, a man profoundly uncomfortable with female sensuality, to surrender his quotidian awareness under the duress of contradiction and yield to the imperatives of the poetic trance, and the enthrallment of its seizure.

During his brief life, Leopardi’s excursions into the perilous territory of love had only brought him emotional disaster and ruin. Whether they were untouched and innocent virgins such as ‘Silvia’ and ‘Nerina’  or the un-named apparition visiting his bedside in ‘Il Sogno’ or his married cousin Geltrude Lazzaro immortalised in ‘Il Primo Amore’ or his sordidly disappointing real-life infatuation with the married Fanny Targioni, women for Leopardi were not beings he was equipped or inclined to deal with realistically.

Mario Fubini, in his thorough and comprehensive commentary on Leopardi’s collection of poems, Canti, states, “La donna ideale”, del Leopardi “non ha preso forma di figura humana.”, rimane sogno, che si confonde col sogno di tutti gli individui: dall intimità iniziale il solleve a vagheggiare la sua immagine del passato e nel futuro parimenti favolosi, a trasformarla in un mito.”
“For Leopardi, ‘The ideal woman does not assume a human form.’ She remains a dream which is confused with the dreams of all men: From the very first intimacy he rises to cherish her past and future images alike, turning them into something  fabulous and mythical.”

Leopardi’s recurring romances with human females were with women who were dead, about to die, or disappearing,  ‘Sopra un Basso Rilieveo’, ‘Il Pensiero Dominante’, ‘Le Ricordanze’, ‘Il Sogno’, ‘Il Ultimo Canto…’ etc. So this particular monument in the life of a beautiful young woman at the apogee of her sensuality, would have made a potent impression on Leopardi. She seems indeterminate –  was she a chaste and cherished wife, or an aristocratic courtesan for whom men had to battle each other and compete in the field of ambiguous courtship?

Leopardi does not tell us. He only lets us know that she was lovely, and  infinitely desirable. Whether such a woman was married in real life or unattached, she would be far beyond Leopardi’s reach, and his ability either to command or to compete.  But here, death conveniently levels the playing-field for him. He can now  address a woman, even one exalted in the puissance of her earthly beauty, with impunity – even superiority –  since she is now cast down by that great leveler death.  Now she is deprived of her voice, her flesh, and her living body, while Leopardi is in full possession of his own complement of all three. Now – unlike when he first fell in love at 18 – he does not have to keep his ‘eyes downcast intently  fixed upon the ground’  nor does he have to pronounce himself  silent and unprotesting and inexpert (cf “Il primo amore”).  He possesses the total assurance of someone who stands literally far above his subject. His exaltation is barely disguised. He is now amply compensated for the wretched physical defect which dominates his life and renders him, despite his brilliant intellect, inferior to his able-bodied inferiors.  He can be justly proud in his shameful mortal standing,  because the woman he is addressing is the mere “decaying pile of dust and bones this stone conceals”.  Now the roles are reversed, and instead of being pitied and despised and put-down by supercilious women, he has the profoundly gratifying privilege of pitying and despising one of their class. In death, this bella donna has restored to him an assurance of his rightful superiority – or even humanity.

But what to say of that ‘one false note’?  Could it be the intrusive appearance of reality at the end of his trance, when the ‘daydream’ ends and the dreary, ordinary, burden-ridden world intrudes to triumph over the wandering imagination? After the extended moments of transcending temporal and spatial reality, the world re-asserts itself. Perhaps Leopardi realises that here is a poem.  Now he finds that he does not have any writing implements. He fumbles in his pockets for the stub of a pencil – he is unable to  jot down his thoughts – perhaps he closes his eyes and goes over the lines in his mind, sub-vocalising as an aid to his memory. Thus he opens the doors to his hitherto  excluded anxious, querulous, explanation-seeking mind which intrudes upon him with its verbal clamour. The trance has ended without his being aware of the sudden transition. He may suppose that he has had a simple daydream which interrupted his thoughts.  He reverts to his habitual questions of ‘why and wherefore’. He allows his habit of mental busyness to fatally swamp his unfolding vision. His question – buried under a mountain of phrases – is an existential one, and it is unanswerable as he phrases it:  ‘How can beauty – if it is found to be so splendid and elevating – be so easily extinguished?’ And, though not expressed in such overt terms,  ‘How can someone like me be a hunchback?’

Leopardi fails to see that the answer to his question is staring him in the face. He is unable to grasp how the pervading enlargement of his vision in the preceding moments has vouchsafed, that this beautiful woman of the monument has, without a doubt, transcended death. His vision has faded like the dream of an awakening dreamer. He has not realised – has failed to learn  – that this suspension of ordinary consciousness, in which the dead can come to assume a living reality, is the sovereign endowment of the poetic trance. It is the moment when death has no meaning. He has not noted that he he has spent a brief eternity in being truly and deathlessly alive, and that he has reached beyond death. He does not make the connection between his state of receptivity, whether willed or involuntary,  in the presence of overwhelming beauty, and transcendence. He does not realise that it is the intrusion or his highly-valued intellect that is ‘the one false note.

Had he been more willing to value and explore – and surrender to the realm of wordless experience , he might have made himself more susceptible to it, and it might have assuaged his despair. But tragically, the assiduously drilled parts of Leopardi’s brain, his discursive intellect, always interrupts his transport, and inserts itself with some clever philosophical riff or calculated bid for approval.  ‘The steadfast token… by some pretext’ is transmuted into something ‘abject’, and thus the ‘seemingly angelic’ becomes ‘debased’ and along with it everything delightful vanishes.  The one bad thing which erases all previous good things resurfaces in ‘Il primo amore’.

The beginning of this amazingly cinematographic poem (a break-down of the opening lines will reveal an unbroken series of scene-changes) is clearly inspired, even though its specific inspiration remains unclear. Is it the monument itself, the women it represents, or the pile of bones Leopardi envisions hidden underground? Is it the ghost he has conjured up, and with whom in order to observe her, he has travelled back in time? Is it this unattainable cynosure of beauty now herself vanquished and stripped of all her loveliness and pride? To whom does he direct his words? To the beautiful gaze or the empty eye-sockets? To the smiling mouth of the empty grimace of a slipped mandible?  If she were still alive and in the full bloom of her mature allurements, he could never have presumed to approach her. His vastly superior intellect and his aristocratic antecedents, as in his crypto-courtship of Fanny Targioni, would have availed him nothing.

When it comes right down to it, the question of Leopardi’s awareness raises some very puzzling questions. It would seem that he attributed his failure to be accepted into the sphere of ‘salon life’ and literary circles to the deplorable  inability of society to recognise his worth – or even perhaps to his own physical deformity. Leopardi seems never to have become aware of the unfortunate effect, even by the lax standards of the day, of his terrible personal hygiene habits. He seems not to have noticed the effect on other people who may have had to mingle with him of his unwashed shirts, his unpleasant body-odour, his dirty neck scarf which served triple duty as a napkin and handkerchief, and the single never-laundered coat he wore throughout his adult life. It seems that he was oblivious to the effect that these deplorable social lapses may have had on others.

We now live in an age where such personal details are openly discussed, and we take them into consideration, and allow them them to inform our insights into and conclusions about people’s lives. What, we wonder, could he have been thinking? Could this have been an unconscious means of giving tacit offense to prideful society? And could it be the same shadow of vengefulness that induces him to presume to peer and pry even with just his mind’s eye into the opaque secrecy of her sepulcher and insult the bones of a former beauty? Her grave is seen by him to be a means of preserving modesty, and by his insight and imagination he has violated its sanctity, in a mimesis of intimacy he could never approximate in life.  If his adamant anti-clericalism had not already hardened into unbelief, he might have reflected upon some pious – and perhaps more dignified –  aspect of the afterlife. But this is all that is, and all that survives a human life, however lovely and rare  – a pitiful heap of bones. He can now address a beautiful woman as “vituperosa e trista” – which is perhaps how he has come to view himself.

Today we are quite familiar with the distinctions that are made about our separate awareness, and with concepts such as ‘the subconscious’ and ‘the right-brain’ – concepts of which Leopardi would have been quite unaware.  While it is quite apparent in his poetic imagery that he was aware of his non-verbal states, it does not appear that he was capable of tolerating for long their seditious uprisings. He breaks off to apostrophise, or to ask an unnecessary question. No sooner is he carried away into those regions of the psyche which are by their form and nature exclusive of the domain of speech, than he reverts to speculating about some concept more amenable to language, and submissive to his intellect. A vision that for some beautiful moments sufficiently enlarged his mind to admit an awareness of undifferentiated and non-linear time is suddenly contracted in “Così riduce il fato”….Now he is again on familiar ground. He did not trust, and could not recognise, these unsustainable to him states, and they are disallowed by the fixed enlightenment of his consciously chosen mind: He can experience them, but it would not seem that he has recognised them.
Nor does he acknowledge that the monument could not be said to have stood in vain, because it shielded from sight a spectacle Leopardi characterised as ‘vile’ – and still more, because it occasioned this poem.

Of course Leopardi could not have failed to notice that  the ugly, as well as the beautiful come to the same end – so it would seem that this ‘sepulchral’ poem is not directly about death, but about death’s being one of the many means of destruction devised by nature. Does Leopardi, like Emily Brontë, perceive nature as being malignant? Perhaps so. In his most philosophical poem ‘La Ginestra’ he certainly is aware of Nature’s remote and impersonal power and beauty. When he speaks about the human condition, he eloquently echoes Tomasso Campanella in the bewilderment Campanella feels as he tries to reconcile the image of a good god with that god’s sly and cynically malevolent treatment of humans. Yet, Leopardi’s conclusions seem filled with resentment, and hand-wringing. His concern is not to evoke and invoke his muse, but rather to dwell on what his contact with her has revealed about himself. She is the accident and not the cause. She is the means by which he seeks to reconcile the irreconcilable aspects of the human condition – such as: How can we be both lofty in our aspirations, and yet so sullied and breakable in our mortality? How can we be simultaneously both joyful and miserable, how can love be both divine and dreadful?

In my imagination I see Leopardi hurriedly leaving the graveyard and taking a carriage back home to the lodgings he shares with his friend Ranieri and Ranieri’s sister Paolina in Torre del Greco. He knows he has the material for a really good poem, and he is anxious to commit it to writing and fix the images which are still swirling riotously around in his head. Somewhere along the ocean road he looks out of the carriage window and sees a young man run down the beach and plunge into the waves. Watching the swimmer boldly striking out further and further away from the shore, he has another thought  – he has found the conceit upon which he can neatly wrap his rational conclusion, and give form and shape to a vision that though indelible and striking, is by its nature illusive and chaotic. This becomes obvious in the poem in the way that images begin gradually to disappear and be replaced by thoughts and pronouncements.

The mental glimpse Leopardi had of the contents of this beautiful woman’s grave seems to have suggested itself  as a metaphor for hopes completely destroyed and turned to ruins, and the impermanence of life, and the malice of god that he refers to in the final third of the poem. The transmutation of moribund hope into hideous relics of undoing, unraveling and decay – and his horrified fascination with the contents of the grave evinced in this poem –  mirror the horrified fascination that draws him again and again to sift through the hidden and unobvious aspects of the human condition. The inexorable advance of human life towards decay and death, the capricious nature of happiness, the swift passage of youth, the end of love – all these are things for which the grave is an overwhelmingly apt symbol.
Leopardi has been called pessimistic, but I think that rather than pessimism, the overwhelmingly predominant emotion which surfaces in many of his poems is existential anger at a capricious god, whose inimical actions and attitudes towards humankind Leopardi reviles even as he dismisses god as not existing. If there is no god where should we turn for consolation? If we turn to lofty thoughts and other abstractions, the moment we see the contents of the grave all these subterfuges fail.  Nor does Leopardi have any human consolation.  His stark childhood lacked a single maternal caress. He never had a sweetheart, nor any prospect of marriage whatsoever.  Nor does the chilling thrilling power of the touch of a woman’s hand referred to in this poem hold any promise of warmth or tenderness – only some other extreme and indescribable emotion. The scale of this poem seems scarcely human – only sublime and terrible in turn. That there is no satisfying sense of real  human contact should not be surprising, because even if Leopardi could conceive of it his mind would then recoil, since he has learned that sensually arousing beauty is something that has an end in the charnel house, and in the secret horrific deterioration within the grave and its concealment. The love of women  ends with a hidden, private dissolution, concealed and protected by the false and undegradable proxy of the gravestone. The grave also is a mask.

But perhaps there is another reason that Leopardi loses the vivid intensity with which he has so effortlessly transported himself through time. Now he is back in the unbearable present, and filled with despondency. One moment he was in the presence of love – of lofty aspirations and heavenly visions of inexpressible beauty, and now he finds himself plucked out of that ocean of vibrating intensity.
What was it that dislodged him so jarringly from that benevolent state?  Wasn’t he ‘a strong swimmer’? Indeed he was. His sense of delight and of wonder, and his susceptibility to beauty was enormous: in this sense he was a super-athlete: The only other answer I can come up with is that he could not be satisfied – he couldn’t get enough – and the moment that single note of dissatisfaction was struck, all the doubts and fears and dark thoughts and unappeased hungers that appear in the final segment of his poem came flooding over him, fatally destroying his beautiful vision.

Leopardi fervently desired to have his own fair share of the world’s happiness in his own lifetime. He entertained no hopes of heaven, and desired no celestial reward. He was able to experience, however vicariously, the shimmering joys of romantic love, but he knew all the while that for him it was utterly unattainable. This must have made the end of his dream so much more devastating.

It is the fragility of our internal states, their susceptibility to external shatterings, that sometimes undoes the best of us. Our habits of thought can ambush us when we are least ready for the encounter. Leopardi’s immense literary and intellectual skills stepped in to take over his mind at the very moment that he was left in a state of depletion. His immense talents as a thinker and a writer were exactly the things that interfered with his ability to keep himself reminded and anchored to the scene of his wonder and bliss. Most of the saints did not possess a fraction of Leopardi’s imagination or his gifts, but what some of them did have was the ability to keep themselves reminded, whether by physical pain, or hunger or cold or sleep-deprivation, of their places in their chosen worlds.

In the bitter ending of his poem Leopardi may be implying that the contemplation of natural beauty and the entertainment of lofty ideas permits us to to deny a grimmer and more concealed reality, but once the spell which we cast upon ourselves by our chosen diversions is broken, the stark and un-impugnable truth intrudes and ruthlessly shatters all our cherished illusions. Then there is no refuge left, and no further means of avoiding  the adamant conclusion.

When the intellect has been permitted to become too sharp a tool, it tends to damage everything with which it comes into contact. It rips the protective fabric covering truths which are kept hidden because of their dangerous propensity to undermine the spirit, without offering the slightest mitigation: it hugely enlarges the sphere of the irreconcilable, and smashes to bits all the safe and comforting certainties that make life tenable.  The gaze of the intellect  rips up the grave stone and pierces directly through the covering of the grave and contemplates the coffin and its sad, pathetic remains. What possible comfort can there be after that? The irresistible urge –  the desire and propensity to uncover harmful truths –  damages the ability to live in peace, to exist on a firm foundation. The remainder of the journey of life  then becomes an impossible voyage, and one is stopped in one’s tracks,  surrounded by emptiness a thousand lonely miles away from any safe or hospitable destination until death itself stops the waiting.

There is a slightly ghoulish footnote to this ‘sepulchral’ poem of Leopardi. In 1900 his bones were exhumed from their 75 year old sojourn in the damp crypt at San Vitale. It was then found that that the remains of the decayed coffin lid had intermingled with the contents of the coffin. Iris Origo remarks in her biography of Leopardi  A Study in Solitude that  “It was impossible to find the skull. Of the mortal remains of Leopardi nothing distinguishable was left.”

This raises some questions.  Did Leopardi’s skull suffer a fate similar to that of Francesco Petrarcha’s, which was removed from his crypt by a drunken friar? Or, did Ranieri and his sister Paolina remove it when they first reopend the coffin in 1844, seven years after Leopardi’s death?  If by ‘skull’ is meant the head and attached mandible, that would be very strange indeed. Despite his voracious appetite for sugar, there is no mention of Leopardi having lost his teeth, and teeth, despite the trouble they may cause by decaying during their owner’s lifetime, do not decay post-mortem. Nor does Leopardi’s death-mask display the hollowed cheek and slackened jaw of a toothless mouth….

Leopardi could not have foreseen the several disinterments that would follow his own death.  His post-mortem rest was plagued with frequent interruptions. He was first buried in Pozzuoli, then in the church’s sacristy, then in its portico, and finally in 1939 in Mergellina.

The final tragedy, that nothing remained of his remains, can now be explained by the fact that his deformity was not caused – as he had believed – by his years of unremitting study, but had instead its far less romantic origin in a disease which could not have been diagnosed in his lifetime – tuberculosis of the bones.  Now reposing on a prominence thought to be Virgil’s grave, Leopardi’s coffin may contain nothing recognisable of his form, but only the molecules of ancient rotting wood, and perhaps the buttons of the only coat he owned – the blue coat with the big lapels in which he is always pictured – the one he had refurbished during his visit to Rome.

But fortunately for us, nearly everything else of him lives on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the Likeness of a Beautiful Woman.

Thus you were once, who now lie buried:
Dust and skeleton become. Now earth and clay upon your bones are heaped.
Motionless, positioned here in vain,
mute, gazing at the fleeting ages,
endures alone a solitary memory;
a grieving likeness, the sentinel
of beauty now stripped away. Those honeyed looks –
as even now your gaze suggests
which  set at once to trembling
the one they did transfix; Those lips
replete and filled with pleasure to brimming,
the steep waves spilling as from an urn which overflows.
The throat, in former times encircled by desire,
that most beloved hand, which cooled to clasp
the icy-cold and trembling hand it thrilled;
the breast to glance at which it seemed
the gazer with a visible pallor tinged….
That was a time that was. Now you are clay
and bones; a sight
reviled and piteous a stone conceals.

Thus does Fate reduce
what once appeared amongst us to be most vibrant and living….
A celestial image, and the eternal mystery
of our very beings. Today the unstoppable font
of immense exalted thoughts and senses,
and puissant beauty which towers over us,
seeming to thrill with splendour.
The steadfast token and the hope secure
of the immortal nature of our estate
and surpassing  fate,
of fortunes that would reign, and gilded worlds
bestowed upon our mortal nature,
tomorrow, by some slight, contrived pretext
makes defiling to the sight,
transforms what hitherto
had almost an angel seemed,
and from our minds together
that which so moving was:
The admirable conceits which delighted, suddenly vanish.

The infinite desires and lofty visions
created by pervading thoughts
and erudite concepts of intrinsic virtue,
seem as the swells of a delicious arcane sea
amidst which the human spirit drifts and wanders,
almost as an intrepid swimmer
disports himself among the billows.
But should one false note
assail the ear, it vitiates all –
turns paradise to naught within an instant.
How could this be so of human nature?
If it is found in all things to be weak and vile
and merely dust and shadows,
whence such lofty feelings?
But if it is born of something noble and gracious
as our most worthy thoughts and motives,
how could they, by such slight and insubstantial causes,
be by such means as this enkindled and snuffed out?

Translation Dia Tsung.

There remains only one small matter to dispose of here: a comment made by Jonathan Galassi in his translation of Leopardi’s Canti. Galassi avers that this poem was composed by Leopardi in Rome sometime between 1831 and 1835, and that it could have been based on a monument now in Ashby Castle Church, Northamptonshire. This monument, to Marchioness Margaret Compton, was executed in the neo-classical style much beloved by Victorians, and sculpted in his Rome studio, by Pietro Tenerani sometime around 1830, where Galassi, who takes his cue from Ugo Dotti,  thinks Leopardi viewed it.

As an interesting aside, Margaret Clepane Compton was the author of a (posthumously published by her husband in 1833)  poem ‘Irene: A Poem in Six Cantos’, the first canto alone consisting of a tedious and extremely long-winded sixty eight verses of nine lines each in iambic pentameter, such that one could reasonably suppose that the Marchioness died either of ennui or exhaustion in penning this elaborate and fancifully extravagant novel in verse form.

Galassi’s comment is based on yet another comment by Ugo Dotti ‘italianista, docente di letteratura all’Universita di Perugia’, who in turn bases his conclusion about the two ‘canti sepolcrali’ (consisting of this poem and the other ‘Sopra un basso rilievo antico sepolcrale’), on a couple of lines found in a letter of Leopardi to Carlotta Lensoni. The letter was dated the twenty-eighth  October 1831, and in it Leopardi says he saw “the bas-relief for the burial of a young woman, full of sadness and sublime constancy”.

Though I hasten to add that I cannot remotely approach the scholastic stature required in order to confidently disagree with two such eminences as Dotti and Galassi, it would seem to me to be quite unlikely that the Marchioness, who died in the year 1830, could have been expected to turn into ‘bones and dust’  granted even the distressing conditions of the Roman climate, in a mere five year period, let alone in (remember this was before the end of October of 1831) less than a year and ten months –  and that is only if she had died in January of 1830.  Besides, if one reposes any confidence at all in the verisimilitude of Leopardi’s poetry, Tenerani could not have secreted the certainly grisly – hardly dusty –  remains, not to be bones for a long while yet, of the marchioness, beneath a sculpture  in his studio, which is where Leopardi firmly places them.

I have always taken a very dim view of the concept of poetic license (here implied by Galassi and Dotti to have been employed by Leopardi) which seems to me to be a covert way of denigrating poetry and designating it to the category of humbug and confabulation. Poetry and Myth, which the ignorant dismiss as fanciful and ‘made-up’, are the very antithesis of untruth. It is to be greatly regretted that lies and counterfeit have been allowed by lax usage and low standards to infiltrate a sacred realm and debase it.

Of course the argument could be made that Leopardi saw the monument in 1831 and wrote his poem in 1835 imagining he stood before it at that time, but even then, the monument could not have been said (unless a year could be taken to mean an age) to have been ‘gazing at the fleeting ages’.  Leopardi places the heart of this poem in a temporal context which cannot easily be brushed aside by making facile suppositions serve to bridge a biographical gap.

Leopardi makes it absolutely clear in his poem that a great deal of time had elapsed between the demise of his subject and his happening upon her monument.
Perhaps Leopardi’s inspiration came as he stood before an ancient Roman funerary monument somewhere in the outskirts of the city of Rome, but the images that came to me as I immersed myself in this poem were of a different sort.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sopra il Ritratto di una Bella Donna.

Tal fosti: or qui sotterra
Polve e scheletro sei. Su l’ossa e il fango
Immobilmente collocato invano,
Muto, mirando dell’etadi il volo,
Sta, di memoria solo
E di dolor custode, il simulacro
Della scorsa beltà. Quel dolce sguardo,
Che tremar fe’, se, come or sembra, immoto
In altrui s’affisò; quel labbro, ond’alto
Par, come d’urna piena,
Traboccare il piacer; quel collo, cinto
Già di desio; quell’amorosa mano,
Che spesso, ove fu porta,
Sentì gelida far la man che strinse;
E il seno, onde la gente
Visibilmente di pallor si tinse,
Furo alcun tempo: or fango
Ed ossa sei: la vista
Vituperosa e trista un sasso asconde.

Così riduce il fato
Qual sembianza fra noi parve più viva
Immagine del ciel. Misterio eterno
Dell’esser nostro. Oggi d’eccelsi, immensi
Pensieri e sensi inenarrabil fonte,
Beltà grandeggia, e pare,
Quale splendor vibrato
Da natura immortal su queste arene,
Di sovrumani fati,
Di fortunati regni e d’aurei mondi
Segno e sicura spene
Dare al mortale stato:
Diman, per lieve forza,
Sozzo a vedere, abominoso, abbietto
Divien quel che fu dianzi
Quasi angelico aspetto,
E dalle menti insieme
Quel che da lui moveva
Ammirabil concetto, si dilegua.

Desiderii infiniti
E visioni altere
Crea nel vago pensiere,
Per natural virtù, dotto concento;
Onde per mar delizioso, arcano
Erra lo spirto umano,
Quasi come a diporto
Ardito notator per l’Oceano:
Ma se un discorde accento
Fere l’orecchio, in nulla
Torna quel paradiso in un momento.

Natura umana, or come,
Se frale in tutto e vile,
Se polve ed ombra sei, tant’alto senti?
Se in parte anco gentile,
Come i più degni tuoi moti e pensieri
Son così di leggeri
Da sì basse cagioni e desti e spenti?

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You, children, be zealous for the
beautiful gifts of the
violet lapped Muses
and for the clear song loving lyre.

But my skin once soft is now
taken by old age,
my hair turns white from black.

And my heart is weighted down and my knees do not lift,
that once were light to dance as fawns,

I groan for this. But what can I do?
A human being without old-age is
not a possibility.

There is the story of Tithonos,
loved by Dawn, with her arms of roses
and she carried him off to to the
ends of the earth.

When he was beautiful and young.
Even so was he gripped
by white hairs of old age.
He still has his deathless wife.

Sappho, the oldest known image, from a sixth-century b.c.e vase.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Crowning of Eos

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Neptis Sappho

Rhododendron Sappho

 

Sappho Sparganura

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Apache Cicada

The legend is, that when Eos the goddess of dawn was cursed by the goddess Aphrodite that she would fall in love a mortal, she became smitten by sweet-voiced Tithonos, the brother of Priam the king of Troy, and carried him away  to be her lover.

Eos then successfully petitioned the gods to grant Tithonos immortality. As time went by, Eos realised that Tithonos had begun to age –  perhaps because of the curse, she had forgotten to ask that he would be granted youth along with his immortality.

When Tithonos inevitably become feeble and old, his body shrivelled, and his beautiful young voice become cracked and shrill. Eos, then  no longer able to bear the sight or sound of him any longer, locked him away in a chamber.

But the gods took pity on Tithonos, and turned him into a cicada – an insect the Greeks deemed immortal.

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Sylvia Townsend Warner (Dec 5th 1893 - May 1st 1978)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In these Four poems written by Sylvia Townsend Warner in the years after the death (on November 9th 1969,) of Valentine –  “The treasure of my soul” –  is retained the echo of the profoundest and grief and loss one can imagine. Sylvia and Valentine had been partners for 39 years.  After the cremation Sylvia wrote “I unmake the death-bed, I remake the marriage-bed I said. And as I lay thinking of all the beds we had lain in, she came and pulled aside the sheets and leaped in beside me. And so I slept all night with her ashes in a respectable little fumed oak tabernacle beside me.”

Warner’s biographer Clare Harman writes that when Warner came across Walter De La Mare’s poem ‘Autumn’* in a book she was given as a present on the Christmas following Valentines death, Warner thought she would die then and there from “The shock of this sudden assault of the truth.”  She wrote in her diary that “Total grief is like a minefield: No knowing when one will touch the tripwire.”

Valentine had chosen Non omnis moriar for her epitaph, and for Sylvia this underscored Valentine’s promise that she would never leave her. Valentine continued to appear in Sylvia’s dreams, and she felt “not so much haunted but possessed.”

Sometime in 1972 she wrote, rather remarkably for such a determinedly secular person as she was,  ” … somewhere about 3 a.m. I woke in my sleep and there she was beside me in actuality of being: not remembered, not evoked, not a sense of presence, Actual.

I was sitting in the kitchen and she standing beside me, in a cotton shirt and grey trousers, looking down on me, with love, intimately, ordinarily, with her  look of tantalising a little, her easy amorous look. She was within touch of my hand. I looked at her and felt the whole force of my love for her, its amazement, a delighted awe, entrancement, rapture.

We were familiar, ourselves  to ourselves. I was withheld from speaking. I looked. I gave myself. I loved with my whole being. No words occurred to me. I knew I must not try to touch her, and I was wholly an embrace of her. And then, without ending, it was an end. I was conveyed into another layer of sleep.”

Since then, and following her sorting out of the letters and other papers relict of her life with Valentine, Warner abandoned completely her style of writing realistic stories, and began her stories of ‘Elfindom’ – indelibly  tinged with a strange mix of fantasy and reality  – set in a time that was no time, yet steeped in the unhistorical medieval, and about a fairy-folk who thought and acted more like irascible and capricious humans than anything resembling Tinkerbell.

Warner died on the morning of the first of May 1978 aged 84 years.

Miss Green's house, first home of Sylvia and Valentine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“On this plain house…”

 

On this plain house where I

Dwell and shall doubtless die

As did my plain forefathers in times past

I see the willow’s light-limbed shadow cast.

 

I watch in solitude

Its flying attitude

Laid on that brick and mortar soberness

Like the sharp imprint of a fleeting kiss.

 

Just so, I think, your shade,

Alien and clear, was laid

Briefly on this plain heart which now plods on

In this plain house where progeny is none.

West Chaldon - another home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Ah, sleep, you come not…”

 

Ah, Sleep, you come not, and I do not chide you.

You the ever-young, the sleek and the supple,

How should I bride you

Who am so harsh with care, so grimed with trouble?

 

You to the child’s cot and the lover’s pillow,

You to the careless creation in field and steading,

And to my roof-mate swallow

Come with goodwill, who come not to my dull bidding.

 

Like lies down with like. If I am to woo you

Sylvia in the garden at Frome Vauchurch (another of their homes) in 1948

I must disguise myself, and in youth’s green

Habit pursue you,

Or imagine myself to what I never have been:

 

Or you in pity put on death’s leaden likeness

To follow my weariness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Azrael

 

Valentine feeding the cats at Frankfort Manor.

Who chooses the music, turns the page,

Waters the geraniums on the window-ledge?

Who proxies my hand,

Puts on the mourning-ring in lieu of the diamond?

 

Who winds the trudging clock, who tears

Flimsy the empty date of calendars?

Who widow-hoods my senses

Lest they should meet the morning’s cheat defenseless?

 

Who valets me at nightfall, undresses me of another day,

Puts tidily and finally away?

And lets in darkness

To befriend my eyelids like an illusory caress?

 

Valentine.

I called him Sorrow when first he came,

But Sorrow is too narrow a name;

And though he has attended me all this long while

Habit will not do. Habit is servile.

 

He, inaudible, governs my days, impalpable,

Impels my hither and thither. I am his to command,

My times are in his hand.

Once in a dream I called him Azrael.

Sylvia with a kitten

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Fie on the hearth-ill-swept…”

 

Fie on the hearth ill-swept

Where sorrows over-kept

Sodden with tears and foul

Lie mouldering cheek by jowl

 

With mildewed revenges,

Grown tasteless with time’s changes,

Limp wraths and mumbled visions,

Fly-blown into derisions,

 

Delights jellied to slime

And tag-ends of rhyme

Life! Grant me a harder

Sylvia in Valentine's sitting room, 1960s.

Housewifery in my larder,

 

And if I may not eat

Fresh-killed meat,

Crisp joy and dewy loathing,

Let me have done with loving.

 

Aye, though philosophy’s

Wan pulse my palate freeze

Ere I to carrion swerve

Carrion-like, let me starve.

Joyce Finzi's drawing of Valentine Dead, November 9th 1969.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Autumn

There is a wind where the rose was;

Cold rain where sweet grass was;

And clouds like sheep

Stream o’er the steep

Grey skies where the lark was.

Nought gold were your hair was;

Nought warm where your hand was;

But phantom, forlorn,

Beneath the thorn,

Your ghost where your face was.

Sad winds where your voice was;

Tears, tears where my heart was;

And ever with me,

Child, ever with me,

Silence where hope was.

Walter De La Mare.


					

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Sylvia Townsend Warner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoem.do?poemId=13831

 

 

If you cut and paste it, this URL should take you to The Poetry Archive and a recording of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s voice, as she reads this wonderful monologue (a soliloquy but for two asides) worthy of, if not surpassing Shakespeare in its sheer Englishness.

The backward-glance upon her life and loves of England’s greatest monarch and Shakespeare’s queen, Elizabeth Tudor, in the moments preceding her death, is here convincingly  intuited by Warner, in lines and images which flow with a terrible dignity of purpose, as if defying the inexorable drift towards the final loss of consciousness that death imposes.

Much could be read into the almost broken ending of the poem, which leaves us with the image of a schoolboy concentrated on reading his lessons by firelight – or perhaps a young man reading a romance or a book of poetry.

One senses that Elizabeth knows that after the boy, or the young lad has read on until the last lively sparks of light from his brand are extinguished, and darkness comes to reign within his little home, that for him that darkness will last but for a night, whereas for her it will last much longer.

Everything in this poem fits so neatly, that I am tempted to infer that Sylvia may also have been thinking of  this fragment from Catullus V….

Soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis cum semel occidie brevis lux
nox est perpetua una dormienda.

Suns may set and yet rise again, but
We, with our brief light, can set but once.
The night which falls is one never-ending sleep.

Warner’s almost magical reading, in her strong and aged voice, carries us with fluent assurance along the mysterious path through which our own minds can sometimes find their way into the minds of others, across the wide removes of stations of life and the centuries-long chasms of death and long-lost time.

 

 

 

None shall gainsay me. I will lie on the floor.

The death of Queen Elizabeth I

Hitherto from horseback, throne, balcony,

I have looked down upon your looking up.

Those sands are run. Now I reverse the glass

And bid henceforth your homage downward. falling

Obedient and unheeded as leaves in autumn

To quilt the wakeful study I must make

Examining my kingdom from below.

How tall my people are! like a race of trees

They sway, sigh, nod heads, rustle above me,

And their attentive eyes are distant as starshine.

I have still cherished the handsome and well-made:

No queen has better masts within her forests

Growing, nor prouder and more restive minds

An effigy of the queen

Scabbarded in the loyalty of subjects;

No virgin has had better worship than I.

No, no! Leave me alone, Woman! I will not

Be put to bed. Do you suppose

That I who’ve ridden through all weathers, danced

Under a treasury’s weight of jewels, sat

Myself to stone through sermons and addresses,

Shall come to harm by sleeping on a floor?

Not that I sleep. A bed were good enough

The Queen's signature

If that were in my mind. But I am here

For deep study and contemplation,

And as Persephone, and the red vixen,

Go underground to sharpen their wits,

I have left my dais to learn a new policy

Through watching of your feet, and as the Indian

Lays all his listening body along the earth

I lie in wait for the reverberation

Of things to come and dangers threatening.

Queen Elizabeth I

Is that the Bishop praying? Let him pray on.

If his knees tire his faith can cushion them.

How the poor man grieves Heaven with news of me!

Deposuit superbos. But no hand

Other than my own has put me down –

Not feebleness enforced on brain or limb,

Not fear, misgiving, fantasy, age, palsy,

Has felled me. I lie here by my own will,

And by the curiosity of a queen.

I dare say there is not in all England

One who lies closer to the ground than I.

Not the traitor in the condemned hold

Elizabeth when young.

Whose few straws edge away from under his weight

Of ironed fatality; not the shepherd

Huddled for cold under the hawthorn bush,

Nor the long dreaming country lad who lies

Scorching his book before the dying brand.

Sylvia Townsend Warner's signature.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This biography of Sylvia Townsend Warner is courtesy of The Poetry Archive.

Sylvia Townsend Warner [1893-1978] is best known today as a groundbreaking feminist and lesbian writer who championed the cause of the outsider in novels such as Lolly Willowes. However, this is only one aspect of a writer whose literary career also encompassed poetry, short stories, essays, biography and translation. The publication by Carcanet in 2008 of a Collected Poems has prompted an overdue reassessment of Townsend Warner as a poet of great imaginative scope and variety.

Townsend Warner was born in Harrow-on-the-Hill where her father was a housemaster at Harrow School. They shared a close relationship and his early death brought her happy childhood to an end. By contrast, her relationship with her mother was always strained.

Her first love was music – only the outbreak of the First World War prevented her from studying composition with Schoenberg. Instead she moved to London and embarked on a decade-long task of scholarship, editing the 10 volume Tudor Church Music. She made friends among the ‘Bright Young Things’ of the 1920s one of whom, David Garrett, was instrumental in getting her first book published by Chatto and Windus, a poetry collection called The Espalier [1925].

Valentine Ackland

However, it was the publication of Lolly Willowes the following year that brought her recognition on both sides of the Atlantic. 1926 was also a turning point for Townsend Warner personally when she met and fell in love with a young poet, Valentine Ackland. The couple lived together until Ackland’s death in 1969. Their first home was in Chaldon Herring in Dorset where they were able to live in comparative freedom. For the rest of their lives the couple tended to seek out rural seclusion, in Norfolk and finally Dorset again. The English countryside, its beauty and hardships, is an important shaping force in Townsend Warner’s work.

This relative isolation did not stop them from being actively engaged in issues of their time. Alarmed by the rise of Facism, Ackland and Townsend Warner both became active members of the Communist party and made several trips to Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Their lives at this time, and much of their writing, were charged with politics, such a Townsend Warner’s 1938 novel After the Death of Don Juan.

In all, Townsend Warner published seven novels, four volumes of poetry and a huge number of short stories, 144 of which were published in The New Yorker. She wrote right up to her death, her last book of stories, Kingdoms of Elfin, appearing in 1977. Townsend Warner died on May Day 1978 and her ashes were interred, along with Valentine Ackland’s, under a single stone in Chaldon churchyard.

Perhaps the most striking characteristic of Townsend Warner’s writing is its sheer variety, not just in terms of genre, but also subject matter and approach. Her novels range widely across time and place, from revolutionary Paris [Summer Will Show], the South Sea Islands [Mr Fortune’s Maggot], to a 14th century priory in East Anglia [The Corner that Held Them] while her poetry encompasses ballads, epitaphs, narrative, love poems and burlesque.

However certain themes thread through these contrasting works: what one critic has described as a “sardonic rural and suburban pastoralism” gives much of her writing a witty, subversive edge. Alongside an appreciation of the absurdist aspects of human behaviour is an empathy with the outsider – the misfits struggling to protect their individuality within an oppressive society.

Her poetry is also distinctive for its formal complexity, perhaps not surprising given her early immersion in music. Sometimes this musicality is combined with a tough realist edge, as in her hard-hitting poems about her experiences in Spain and the Second World War. Elsewhere, particularly in her love poems to Ackland, she captures an emotional intensity in which “the kindling of language and flesh seem one” [John Wilkinson, University of Notre Dame, Project Muse].

Another powerful theme is the onset of age, exemplified in her Archive recording, ‘Gloriana Dying’. A dramatic monologue in flexible blank verse, it movingly imagines the aging Elizabeth I as she faces her impending death. Read by the elderly poet, it’s deeply touching in its combination of physical vulnerability and toughness of spirit and mind. The poem ends with a remarkable acknowledgement that the great Gloriana now has more in common with the least of her subjects – the prisoner, the shepherd and the humble “long-dreaming country lad”.

Townsend Warner once commented wryly “I intend to be a posthumous poet”. The revival of interest in her poetry has encouraged a fresh appreciation of this aspect of a writer described by one critic as “second only to Virginia Woolf among the women writers of our century.”

 

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