Monday, 16 October 2017

Richard Wilbur RIP

This link on Frank Wilson's Books Inq blog alerted me to the sad news that the great American poet Richard Wilbur has died. He lived a long (96 years), productive and largely very happy life, which ended peacefully – and yet the news hits hard, I think because of what died with him: a surely unrepeatable combination of technical perfection, deep poetic knowledge and respect for tradition, wit and elegance, reticence and grace. Truly we shall not see his like again.
 I've posted many of Wilbur's poems here over the years (as a quick search will confirm). How to mark his death? Surely with this, perhaps his greatest, the poem that even Randall Jarrell (who had mixed feelings about Wilbur's work) called 'one of the most marvellously beautiful, one of the most nearly perfect poems any American has written' – A Baroque Wall Fountain in the Villa Sciarra...

Under the bronze crown 
Too big for the head of the stone cherub whose feet   
      A serpent has begun to eat, 
Sweet water brims a cockle and braids down 

            Past spattered mosses, breaks 
On the tipped edge of a second shell, and fills   
      The massive third below. It spills 
In threads then from the scalloped rim, and makes 

            A scrim or summery tent 
For a faun-ménage and their familiar goose.   
      Happy in all that ragged, loose 
Collapse of water, its effortless descent 

            And flatteries of spray, 
The stocky god upholds the shell with ease, 
      Watching, about his shaggy knees, 
The goatish innocence of his babes at play; 

            His fauness all the while 
Leans forward, slightly, into a clambering mesh   
      Of water-lights, her sparkling flesh 
In a saecular ecstasy, her blinded smile 

            Bent on the sand floor 
Of the trefoil pool, where ripple-shadows come 
      And go in swift reticulum, 
More addling to the eye than wine, and more 

            Interminable to thought 
Than pleasure’s calculus. Yet since this all   
      Is pleasure, flash, and waterfall,   
Must it not be too simple? Are we not 

            More intricately expressed 
In the plain fountains that Maderna set 
      Before St. Peter’s—the main jet   
Struggling aloft until it seems at rest 

            In the act of rising, until   
The very wish of water is reversed, 
      That heaviness borne up to burst   
In a clear, high, cavorting head, to fill 

            With blaze, and then in gauze   
Delays, in a gnatlike shimmering, in a fine 
      Illumined version of itself, decline, 
And patter on the stones its own applause? 

            If that is what men are 
Or should be, if those water-saints display   
      The pattern of our aretê
What of these showered fauns in their bizarre, 

            Spangled, and plunging house? 
They are at rest in fulness of desire 
      For what is given, they do not tire 
Of the smart of the sun, the pleasant water-douse 

            And riddled pool below, 
Reproving our disgust and our ennui   
      With humble insatiety. 
Francis, perhaps, who lay in sister snow 

            Before the wealthy gate 
Freezing and praising, might have seen in this   
      No trifle, but a shade of bliss— 
That land of tolerable flowers, that state 

            As near and far as grass 
Where eyes become the sunlight, and the hand   
      Is worthy of water: the dreamt land 
Toward which all hungers leap, all pleasures pass.

Not an Ex-Parrot

I always enjoy stories of supposedly extinct species being rediscovered – partly because they are in themselves good news, and partly because they suggest we are often rather too liberal in our diagnoses of extinction. The world is bigger – and stranger – than we imagine (stranger than we can imagine, according to Arthur Eddington), and we often underestimate the resilience and staying power of nature.
  Here is the latest news of an Australian bird that was thought to have been extinct for a century – the mysterious Night Parrot. It's hardly surprising that this parrot should have disappeared from view for so long: not only is it nocturnal, it is also a very reluctant flier that prefers to keep to the ground, skulking in thickets of Spinifex grass. At least its call has now been identified, which should make matters easier...
 By the way, the piece I've linked to contains the cherishable phrase 'Spinifex knoll'. Not one you often come across.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

English Messiahs

So there I was the other day, in one of my regular charity shops, when I spotted a book with the more than intriguing title English Messiahs. Opening it to have a look, I discovered that it was an account, by one Ronald Matthews, of six English religious pretenders who had claimed to be either the Messiah, or the harbinger – or potential mother – thereof, or, in one worrying case, God Almighty's nephew. It was published in 1936, and the author is careful to exclude the obviously insane or the obviously fraudulent – which still leaves him with plenty of Messiahs to choose from. There is something about Protestantism, the author suggests, that tends to encourage individuals who believe they have this particular kind of special destiny...
  Matthews' first case study is a fascinating and sad one – the story of the 'Quaker Jesus', James Nayler. He seems to have been a decently and sanely devout man, a prominent and effective Quaker, who suffered some kind of brainstorm that left him identifying rather too strongly with Jesus. As a result, he allowed a group of female followers to become dangerously devoted to him (he had a decidedly Jesus-like look to him). In the end, they insisted on leading him into Bristol on horseback, chanting 'Holy! Holy! Holy!', in what looked like a blasphemous re-enactment of Christ's entry into Jerusalem. Nayler was arrested, his case was discussed at length in Parliament, and he was duly punished for blasphemy by being pilloried and flogged, then having his tongue bored with a hot iron and his forehead branded with the letter 'B'. This was followed by two years' hard labour. He emerged from prison physically broken but with his mental equilibrium restored. Nayler died shortly after being robbed and left near death in a field in Huntingdonshire. As I said, a sad story.
 There is some sadness too in the case of the much better known Joanna Southcott, the remarkably popular 'prophetess' who, in her sixties, announced that she was going to give birth to 'Shiloh', the new Messiah. Instead of doing so, she died, surrounded by fanatical believers who were probably more convinced of her mystical pregnancy than she was. These believers were hard put to accept that Southcott was dead (despite the evidence of her decomposing body) or that she had never been pregnant, and even when they had finally swallowed these facts, many of them remained devout 'Southcottians'.
  Indeed the long afterlife of this particular nonsense is its most remarkable feature. I remember seeing notices in the papers as recently as the 1970s, proclaiming that 'War, disease, crime and banditry, distress of nations and perplexity will increase until the Bishops open Joanna Southcott's box.' This was a sealed wooden box left by Southcott with instructions that it be opened at a time of national crisis in the presence of 24 Bishops – on which Christ would immediately return to Earth and eternal peace would reign. In 1927 the psychic researcher Harry Price claimed to have X-rayed the box and found it to contain such odds and ends as a rusty pistol, a lottery ticket and a nightcap. However, Southcottians declared that Price's box was not the real one, which was held at a secret location known only to them.
  Those notices in the papers were placed by the Panacea Society, the last incarnation of Southcottianism, founded in 1919 in Bedford. In the 1930s there were some 70 Southcottians in Bedford, and the Society owned several buildings in the town, one of them, known as The Ark, set aside for the use of the Messiah following the Second Coming. They also had allotments, and believed that Bedford was the original site of the Garden of Eden – a quite wonderful flight of fancy, as anyone who's visited Bedford will appreciate.
 Though the Panacea Society no longer exists as a religious community, there is still a charitable trust – and, amazingly, a Panacea Museum that is open to the public and boasts an impressive 4.7 rating on Trip Advisor. Next time I'm in Bedford (for the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery), I must drop in.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

The late Jeremy and Other Snails

News of the demise of Jeremy the lefty love triangle snail got me thinking about snails in general. Though they're a plague and a bane in the garden, I've always had a soft spot for them, and have fond memories of my daughter, when very young, entertaining herself with (surprisingly pacey) snail races.
 Thom Gunn's fine poem, Considering the Snail, I have posted before. Here, for a very different take on the subject, is Marianne Moore's To a Snail

If “compression is the first grace of style,”
you have it. Contractility is a virtue
as modesty is a virtue.
It is not the acquisition of any one thing
that is able to adorn,
or the incidental quality that occurs
as a concomitant of something well said,
that we value in style,
but the principle that is hid:
in the absence of feet, “a method of conclusions”;
“a knowledge of principles,”
in the curious phenomenon of your occipital horn.
Author’s Notes:“Compression is the first grace of style”: Democritus.
“Method of conclusions”; “knowledge of principles”: Duns Scotus.
The citations in the Author's Notes are not very accurate, but let's not get pedantic. What fascinates Moore is the snail's 'contractility', as exemplified by its 'occipital horn'. A century and more earlier, Keats, reading Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, was similarly enchanted by the snail's 'tender horns', as he writes in a letter (from Box Hill) to John Hamilton Reynolds –

'He [Shakespeare] has left nothing to say about nothing or anything: for look at Snails, you know what he says about Snails, you know where he talks about "cockled Snails"--well, in one of these sonnets, he says--the chap slips into--no! I lie! this is in the Venus and Adonis:1 the Simile brought it to my Mind. 

Audi-- As the snail, whose tender horns being hit,
Shrinks back into his shelly cave with pain
And there all smothered up in shade doth sit,
Long after fearing to put forth again:
So at his bloody view her eyes are fled,
Into the deep dark Cabins of her head.'

If Keats identifies with the snail's contractile sensitivity, William Cowper, considering the snail, also admires its self-contained, 'hermit-like' life, the creature's complete identity with its home perhaps reflecting something of Cowper's desperate need for home, for a safe place that offered him enough stability and security to be able to engage with the world – and retreat from it –

'To grass, or leaf, or fruit, or wall,
The snail sticks close, nor fears to fall,
As if he grew there, house and all

Within that house secure he hides,
When danger imminent betides
Of storm, or other harm besides
                                                Of weather.

Give but his horns the slightest touch,
His self-collecting power is such,
He shrinks into his house, with much

Where’er he dwells, he dwells alone,
Except himself has chattels none,
Well satisfied to be his own
                                                Whole treasure.

Thus, hermit-like, his life he leads,
Nor partner of his banquet needs,
And if he meets one, only feeds
                                                The faster.

Who seeks him must be worse than blind,
(He and his house are so combin’d)
If, finding it, he fails to find 
Its master.' 

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

His Country Again

Unwatch'd, the garden bough shall sway,
      The tender blossom flutter down,
      Unloved, that beech will gather brown,
This maple burn itself away;
Unloved, the sun-flower, shining fair,
      Ray round with flames her disk of seed,
      And many a rose-carnation feed
With summer spice the humming air;
Unloved, by many a sandy bar,
      The brook shall babble down the plain,
      At noon or when the lesser wain
Is twisting round the polar star;
Uncared for, gird the windy grove,
      And flood the haunts of hern and crake;
      Or into silver arrows break
The sailing moon in creek and cove;
Till from the garden and the wild
      A fresh association blow,
      And year by year the landscape grow
Familiar to the stranger's child;
As year by year the labourer tills
      His wonted glebe, or lops the glades;
      And year by year our memory fades
From all the circle of the hills.

Inspired, or reminded, by my recent visit to Somersby, I've been rereading In Memoriam. It's a poem imbued not only with overwhelming grief but a powerful sense of place and the passing seasons. In the lines above, these elements intermingle beautifully as Tennyson contemplates leaving the family home, the rectory in Somersby. 'The brook' is of course the one that gave its name to a narrative poem by Tennyson and, more famously, to the lyric embedded in it - 'I come from haunts of coot and hern...' The present-day brook, down the road from the rectory, is a shadow of its former self, no longer babbling down the plain but rather trickling steadily. But the poem lives on – as does In Memoriam.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017


Today two broadcasting legends celebrate their 94th birthdays – motor racing commentator Murray Walker, who is now 'semi-retired', and cravat hero Nicholas Parsons, who is still indefatigably working. He has presented every single edition of Radio 4's Just a Minute since its birth 50 years ago, and is still doing a splendid job as chairman, straight man and comic in his own right.
 Parsons made his film debut a full 70 years ago (in Master of Bankdam, adapted from Thomas Armstrong's big bestseller The Crowthers of Bankdam) and his stage debut a couple of years before that. And he was a relatively late starter, having spent five years working as an engineering apprentice on Clydebank and studying mechanical engineering. Truly a legend.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Sapphira and the Slave Girl

I've been reading Willa Cather's last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, published in 1940. Like her early tales of prairie life, it's a novel of bittersweet nostalgic retrospect – but this time the nostalgia is for Cather's childhood years in West Virginia, before her father moved the family to Nebraska. In fact the nostalgia is for a period before she was even born, before the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves. Though slave ownership was the exception rather than the rule in West Virginia, Cather's central character, the Sapphira of the title, owns slaves, family slaves whom she brought with her when she followed her husband to West Virginia.
 Sapphira, who at the time we meet her is a dropsical invalid, is a domineering, deeply flawed character who yet has a compelling charm and something truly lovable about her – rather like Myra Henshawe in My Mortal Enemy. Her treatment of her slaves is for the most part benignly maternalistic – until she begins to form dark suspicions about one of them, Nancy, the 'slave girl' of the title. It is those suspicions that drive the narrative of the novel – though 'drive' is too strong a word (as is 'narrative' almost). This is a novel whose interest lies chiefly in its richly layered characterisation – always Cather's strongest point – and its strong sense of place and community. The action proceeds, rather fitfully, in a series of episodes or tableaux, the narrative divided not into chapters but 'Parts', though each part is no longer than a normal chapter.
 The story is told by what seems to be an omniscient narrator, with a particular insight into the characters and events. It is not until the Epilogue and a sudden switch into first person that we discover who the narrator is – a discovery that throws new light onto what has gone before.
 Sapphira and the Slave Girl is so liberally sprinkled  with such now taboo words as 'nigger' and 'darkie' that it is unlikely to turn up on any present-day curriculum. Indeed Cather's attitude to the Peculiar Institution is at least partly indulgent – but in this, as in other areas, she skirts sentimentality with her usual finesse. This is not one of her best novels, but her particular magic – the mysterious power that lies behind the plain surface of her words – is still present. That magic makes even a second-rank Cather a more rewarding read than the first-rank productions of many other novelists of her time.