Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Sycamores in Shakespeare

Back to plants and poetry; both together in this case.

Shakespeare mentions sycamores three times in his plays.

In Act I Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet, Benvolio informs Lady Montague where her son, the stereotypical melancholy lover Romeo, has wandered off to.

Madam, an hour before the worshipp'd sun
Peer'd forth the golden window of the east,
A troubled mind drave me to walk abroad;
Where, underneath the grove of sycamore
That westward rooteth from the city's side,
So early walking did I see your son:
Towards him I made, but he was ware of me
And stole into the covert of the wood:
I, measuring his affections by my own,
That most are busied when they're most alone,
Pursued my humour not pursuing his,
And gladly shunn'd who gladly fled from me.

(Old Montague remarks that this is a regular haunt for Romeo's sighs and tears.)

In Act V Scene 2 of Love's Labours Lost, Boyet tells us:

Under the cool shade of a sycamore
I thought to close my eyes some half an hour.

And finally, in Act IV Scene 3 of Othello, Desdemona sings the opening line of the "Willow Song":

The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
    Sing all a green willow...

We'll come back to the song, but for now I'm going to focus on the passage in Romeo and Juliet, impelled there by Richard Paul Roe's book, The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard's Unknown Travels (2011). This book, published soon after the author's death in 2010, has gained a certain reputation among Anti-Stratfordians, i.e. those people who think that Shakespeare's works were not written by Shakespeare but someone else. They believe it unlikely that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon knew Italy at first hand. So they think that if the plays reveal first-hand knowledge of Italy, it helps their case.

Roe points out that Brooke, the direct source for RJ, and all the other less direct sources, don't mention any sycamores; this was a new addition by the author of Romeo and Juliet .  Roe travelled to Verona and was shown sycamores just outside the Porta Palio, once a gate in the medieval walls on the west side of Verona. These trees are descendants, he claims, of the grove actually seen in situ by the author of Romeo and Juliet. (The Porta Palio that survives today was built in 1550-1561, replacing an earlier gate.)

Roe isn't specific, but judging from Italian sources, it appears that the trees in question are Fig-Mulberry (Ficus sycomorus), a splendid tree commonly planted in urban sites in the Mediterranean, and called "sicomoro" in Italian. (The name, of Greek origin, literally means Fig  (sykon) + Mulberry (moron).)

 It's native to the Middle East and has been cultivated, like the Common Fig, for thousands of years. It's too frost-tender to grow in Britain.

But as it happens it is the species that was originally meant by "sycamore" in English, because the earliest OED examples (sense 1)  are talking about the tree in the Bible, e.g in Luke 19:4.

Et praecurrens ascendit in arborem sycomorum ut videret eum: quia inde erat transiturus. (Luke 19:4, Vulgate translation)

The tree that we call Sycamore today (Acer pseudoplatanus) grows in Britain very well. It isn't a native tree, though. It was introduced from mainland Europe at an early but unknown date.

You'll see various dates thrown around about when this happened.

"considered to be around the 15th or 16th centuries"

"It was probably introduced to the UK in the Middle Ages.." ... "Having been introduced to the UK in the 17th century..."

Some even say it came in with the Romans. It's possible.

When someone in the unsystematic age when Shakespeare lived  uses a plant-name, particularly to name a plant they have actually seen or used for themselves and not a plant in a book, it's often difficult or impossible to know what species of plant they were talking about. Popular plant-names are notorious for being applied in a very individualistic way to a wide variety of different species. "Sycamore", in England, was a name in search of a tree.

So when in the Paston Letters we find "a payre of beddes of segamore" (1506), how can we say with certainty what kind of timber was meant? (The timber of A. pseudoplatanus is excellent, but had it even been introduced into Britain by that date? We just don't know.)

And the same is true, really, of Shakespeare's references to "sycamore". The  OED's early examples of "Sycamore" in the sense of A. pseudoplatanus (sense 2)  all contain a measure of uncertainty. They might mean that, but they might mean a different tree.

The first examples where we can say:  Yes, this is definitely A. pseudoplatanus -  are from no earlier than 1657. But that's not particularly unusual. Before that period, the kind of people who worked with trees, and who therefore had a reason to explain exactly which tree they meant, were illiterate. It was only with the growth of written botany, and other writings about gardens and forestry and estate management, that we begin to know exactly what species is being referred to.

So we don't know which species Shakespeare might have had in mind, and most likely he didn't envisage any species in particular: the sycamore for him would be a euphonious, rather exotic sounding tree-name with classical and biblical connections. Just the thing for his plays with their exotic far-away settings.

(In the USA, "Sycamore" means a plane tree, Platanus species, but that seems to have begun only in the nineteenth century.)

The Willow Song in Othello was evidently not Shakespeare's own composition. He part-quotes (and part-adapts) fragments of an already well-known song; the music is in older lute-books, though the earliest more complete text of the lyric is in a manuscript of 1616. Typical of popular songs, it positively thrives on enigma; having referred to sycamore in the opening line, it thereafter refers only to willow. In the original song, the lovesick protagonist is male. The sycamore's appearance here and in the RJ passage suggests that it had developed an association with lovesick swains. (I take this idea from the poet Robin Hamilton; it came up in a discussion on the British-Poets forum.) Perhaps that association arose because of the opening line of the popular song, or perhaps from false-etymology: sick-amor.  At this point in the play Shakespeare wanted to establish Romeo's conventionally lovesick behaviour, and adorned his description with the first appropriate-sounding tree-name that came to mind.

What then to make of Roe's discovery? His Verona trees don't look old, and them being where they are doesn't prove (or even particularly suggest) that trees of the same species were there in the 1580s. This area is now paved and tarmacked. Is there any evidence of continuity with a more ancient grove? Or was this a relatively recent urban planting? Perhaps the canny Veronese authorities chose the "sicomoro" with the famous play about their city in mind?

Here's what I really think. Unlike the Anti-Stratfordians, I don't find it inconceivable that Shakespeare (of Stratford-upon-Avon) might have visited Italy. There was plenty of unaccounted-for time in the 1580s when we don't know what he was doing. But as things stand I don't know of any persuasive evidence that he did go to Italy. Probably he never travelled outside England. But people tend to under-rate the power of his omnivorous reading combined with an unparalleled imagination and an unparalleled gift for thinking himself into other people's skins. When Shakespeare set plays in Italy or elsewhere,  painting a realistic portrait of the locale and culture came fairly low down on his priority list.  But because he imagined his stories so intensely and so fully, he was more than usually apt to hit on things that really turned out to be close to local events of which he had no knowledge. In Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare mentioned sycamores without much reflection, but the things that perhaps unconsciously influenced his choice -  the fact that they had exotic biblical associations as well as associations with the behaviour of lovers - are by no means entirely unrelated to the reasons why there really are sicomoros in Verona today, and surely were in the 1580s too, if not precisely beyond the western wall. It was a tree of sunny climes, a valued tree, a tree planted for shade in urban spaces, a tree therefore that in a place like Italy would inevitably be used as a prop in the elaborate rituals of love. All those ideas might have occurred to Shakespeare simply from reading his Bible. But of course the ideas came not consciously, and not to him alone. The hive-mind of European literature was already embedding these impressions of the sicomoro in story and song. So his surprise bullseye is not such a surprise.  

[Just as it's not such a surprise that there's a "Sagittary" in Shakespeare's Venice, and  it turns out that there's a Frezzeria ("fletchery") in the real Venice. Details in the link below.  ]

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Monday, October 17, 2016

Me n my blog

While I was on my recent travels, one of the cloudy ideas that kept coming back to me was that I would try to put in order some of the ideas that lie behind the rather large body of posts (some 700) that I've amassed over the last eleven years.

It was my intention, early on, that the blog would have no unifying topic. But in effect it does keep being, with only minor exceptions, about the same topics. Reductively speaking, it's a flowers and poetry blog. And the point is --- what?

We can begin, tediously enough, with relativism. From my distant academic grounding in literature (especially medieval literature), I wanted to stretch myself to look at all sorts of literature, from all ages and places. I wanted to look outside the canon as well as within it. My old-fashioned question was, is it meaningful to designate some writing as good and some as bad? I thought not. I thought everything deserved attention. I considered it as a reverence that we ought, ideally, to feel and express for all human artefacts.

I've made my peace with the canon now, to a large degree. I see that selection is an inevitable social process. We need to be able to converse about the same things, or our conversations will be very limited indeed. Yet it's salutary to see that greatness has its arbitrary side. I often think of Malvolio: "some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them". The great authors that I love to write about have become great, not only because of the personal genius that I try to reverence, but also by being read and written about. Greatness, that is to say, is a social construction.

The connection with flowers is, I suppose, obvious. We don't call one plant good and another bad, in themselves. If you are like me, you love all plants. It's only when we have a particular end in view that one plant becomes better than another: better, that is, for our purpose.

But let's come back to artefacts, which in this blog tends to mean literary artefacts. Another of my very few ideas is about a comparatively definite distinction between the outer view and the inner view. The outer view is the one we take of artefacts in which we have no engagement; and the inner view is the opposite. Traditionally, outer views are dismissed. For example, we don't take much interest in someone's opinion about Tristan und Isolde if they don't care for opera. But none of us is inward all the time. And a dialogue that takes place entirely within a circle of fans soon becomes unhealthily isolated from the largeness of the world. So I believe that a dialectic between inner and outer is a necessary aim for a critic. Not just for a critic. It's also how we should negotiate life.


Life... I believe we are products of our environment and never fully know ourselves. I believe we inherit, from our past and from the tribe and from our environment, very large parts of our thinking, and it's a difficult but vital practice to try and look at these thoughts from a different perspective than when we are helplessly thinking them.

Consequently, I think that I believe much the same as what many other people believe. And the comments stream beneath Guardian articles tends to confirm that. I should like to be more radical and original than I am, but actually nearly everything I think is being thought by lots of other people at the same time. And yet, what we think isn't true, or is only a very partial truth at any rate.

Of course I believe that biography is shaping, so my own life story is relevant. One side of my family is English, the other Swedish. My upbringing is middle-class, but only the English side of my family were middle-class. My friends are mainly working-class. I live on a council estate. My job is a bit in-between. Naturally enough I'm fascinated by the different cultures and behaviours that surround me. Naturally enough they question my own assumptions sharply.

As I grow older (I'm 58) I become more aware of the limitations, helplessly imbibed, of my generation. For example, I believe that everyone of my age, certainly every white male, is to some degree racist and sexist. We have to strive against these attitudes, but it requires a certain self-honesty, not easily achieved, to recognize how deeply they're ingrained.

My interest in plants and nature provokes another line of questioning about this human life. Dante speaks of man's triple soul: vegetable, animal and rational. I decline to order these in ascending value. Much of how we live can be seen as exemplifying the vegetable soul working itself out; and much more the animal soul. The fundamental differences between how plants live and how animals live is, of course, a perennial meditation of mine. (And of course I believe in plant intelligence.) How we humans live is partly an elaboration of these elements within ourselves, partly too (as Dante rather neglected) a necessary accommodation with the ways of plants and animals in our environment. Of course I lament the lack of interest in or contact with nature in our urban lives. But at the same time I read these urban lives as in themselves profoundly natural (that is, part of nature), and as continuing to express the needs of the vegetable and animal elements within us.

The vegetable element of fixedness, solidity, home, a base, roots; and the animal restlessness of emotions, movement, energy, violence and petrol. (It's perhaps the rational soul that I feel is the least well-founded part of Dante's conception.)


And so, finally as far as this hasty post is concerned, to nations and languages. Among the kind of people that I exemplify, the nation-state has long been the subject of severe critique. We try to look at things more globally. My own smatterings of half a dozen languages (regrettably, all European) reflect a moderately sustained effort to see things from outside the English-speaking world and its literatures, at any rate. And of course I've especially used the feelings I have about Sweden, a permanent frozen need to inhabit the Nordic world where I've never lived and whose languages I'm far from fluent in, in order to investigate what is meant by love for own nation or nations, an emotion I feel in a very strong degree. How does this work with the global outlook that we seek, however feebly, to cultivate?

I am not an academic, and I have to make the best of that. I've written about many things, but there's no subject, no field, not even one area of a field, that I really know a lot about. Those inadequate smatterings of languages are typical of my knowledge generally. I'm not a botanist and I haven't read most of the modern poetry that a scholar of modern poetry would consider as a necessary basis. I'm theoretically uninformed, and am often worrying over questions about which a large body of debate, almost unknown to me, has certainly accrued already. Often the best thing I could say, the thing I ought to say, is: go and read about it elsewhere. But of course I have to hope that there's a place for my kind of ignorance too. It appears to me that most of our fine ideas are ultimately grounded in trying to valorize our own life-choices, and my own ideas are certainly no exception to the rule.


If I could have continued with this beyond my bed-time, I'd have liked to get on to other preoccupations: birth and growth, the seasonal cycles, waste and death and decay and the washing clean of water and ice. And love: our need to give it and to receive it; the reason, so often confused, for almost everything we do. Self-love and self-centredness, too. Change, and extinction. Climate change and greed and our other violences and cruelties. Duty. Drugs. Being here. Health.

This is becoming vague and poetical. I think it'll be back to specifics for the next 700 posts.

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Thursday, October 13, 2016

the inner workings of my surroundings

No time for a big post at the moment, so here's just a pointer to a fascinating book that I was told about by a friend:

My Life Story by Emily Shareefa of Wazan  (1912)

Emily, a well-born English girl, married the Grand Shareef of Wazan (Ouezzane, Wazzan) at Tangier in 1873, with her family's very reluctant consent. This book about her subsequent life in Morocco was written in 1911.

R.B Cunninghame Graham remarks in the Preface: "Even Doughty's great epic of Arabia has to yield in some respects to this plain narrative of daily life written so simply and in such good faith..." Indeed, it does. Doughty romantically celebrates, through half-closed eyes, the eternal Otherness of the Arab world; the Shareefa patiently, and often comically, learns to live it.

During the first few weeks of my marriage almost daily excursions were made. The Shareef had a large orange garden near the town of Tangier, and thither we proceeded, lunch being sent on after us. I admired the gardener's baby son, and the mother made me understand that it belonged to the Shareef.  I was so taken aback that I hastily returned the child to its parent, and went and sat under an orange tree and wept. At first I did not reply to the Shareef's inquiries for the reason of my tears; on second thoughts, I put on rather an injured air and told him what I had discovered. He was much amused, and told me I had much to learn regarding the little episode. Forthwith he explained to me how barren women, or those wishing for a son, came to the Zowia or Sanctuary for his prayers and intercession with God to grant the wishes of the supplicant. Faith, he said, was a powerful force in the Mohammedan religion, and that for that reason the Shorfa (plural for Shareef) were approached on divers requests, the sanctity of their lineage making them Saints. The gardener's wife had five daughters, and, by wearing an amulet the Shareef had directed to be given to her, she had, for her sixth child, borne a son; consequently he belonged to the Zowia or Sanctuary. I don't think I was convinced just then. My complete ignorance of the inner workings of my surroundings started me thinking, and gave me an impulse to learn Arabic; for I fully recognized that unless I could master that language, the manners and customs would be a closed book to me for ever.  ...

Now read on!


Monday, October 10, 2016

Dan Andersson (1888-1920): "Visa" ("Song")

The river Pajso, in Dalarna

[Image source:]

With the kind of serendipity that I've noticed before when mixing up my reading on my travels, I find that Dan Andersson, the Swedish poet, translated Baudelaire (whose poems I was reading at around the same time), and died accidentally of hydrogen cyanide poisoning (which has a vague connection with my post on bitter almonds).

Andersson wrote music for some of his own lyrics. Many others have been turned into songs, as for instance on Sofia Karlsson's well-received 2005 album Svarta Ballader.

Here's the poem I melodized myself. I'm not the first to try it, though I haven't tracked down anyone else's music yet.


       C                     Am7
Min kärlek föddes i lustfyllt vår,
     F               A7       Dm        G
på strander av lekfullt dansande vatten,
       C                               Am7
och vildhonung drack jag i ungdomens år
F           Dm        G      C
på ängar våta av dagg i natten.

       C                         Am7
Min kärlek föddes vid Paiso älv,
      F         A7              Dm         G
där laxarna hoppa och gäddorna jaga.
       C                              Am7
Där vart den en visa som sjöng sig själv,
    F        Dm          G            C
en vildes rus och en spelmans saga.

       E7                             Am7        
Den sjöd i mitt blod varje svallande vår,
     Dm                          G
pånyttfödd att locka och vinna,
       E7                             Am7    
den sjöng där all världen i vinrus går
      Dm7                    G7
och jord och himmlar brinna.

         C               Am7
Men aldrig mera älskar jag så
         F            A7             Dm      G
som i rosornas år, som vid Paisos vatten,
       C                              Am7
min kärlek är gammal och börjar bli grå,
       F           Dm           G       C
och hittar ej vildhonung mera i natten.

C .. Am7
F A7 Dm  B7 Em
C  G
F6 C


My love was born in pleasure-filled spring,
on shores of playful dancing water,
and I drank wild honey in the years of my youth
in meadows wet with the dew of the night.

My love was born beside the river Paiso,
where the salmon leap and the pike hunt.
It was a ballad that sang itself,
a wild intoxication and a minstrel's saga.

It seethed in my blood each burgeoning year,
new-born to entice and to attain,
it sang where the whole world reels with wine
and the earth and the heavens are burning.

But never more shall I love like that,
as in the years of the roses, beside Paiso's waters,
my love is old and begins to go grey,
and finds no more wild honey in the night.


C.D. Locock did a rhyming translation of this poem in A Selection from Modern Swedish Poetry (1929):

My love was born in the sweet of the year,
By the banks of a rippling, hurrying river;
Wild nectar I quaffed in my youth-days there,
In dew-drenched meads where the moonbeams quiver.

My love was born where the salmon leap
In Paiso's river of waters dancing;
And it grew to a melody sung in sleep,
A wild man's revel, a tale entrancing.

It seethed in my blood like a draught divine,
Born anew with each Spring's returning,
When the world goes reeling, as drunk with wine,
And Earth and Heaven are burning.

But never more have I loved as then
In the moon of roses by Paiso river;
My love goes grey, nor findeth again
Sweet nectar in meads where the moonbeams quiver.

Seeking to match the original's meter and rhyme, Locock was inevitably less than literal. The hunting pike have disappeared; on the other hand he introduces the quivering moonbeams. The latter is a desperate expedient to cope with the very commonplace rhyme in Swedish of "vatten" (water) with "natten" (the night). (Feminine rhymes are the norm in Swedish, but much more tricky in English.)


The river with the Finnish name Paiso or Pajso is near Grangärde in the Forest Finn region of southern Dalarna (one of a number of such regions in Sweden and Norway).

 On his father's side Andersson was himself a descendant of the Finnish migrants who came here in the 16th-17th centuries to cultivate new land (by slash and burn clearance).

The unique version of Savonian Finnish spoken by these settlers and their earlier descendants is now extinct, but the culture of the Forest Finns lives on:

They are a defined national minority and they have their own flag

Flag of the Forest Finns

Dan Andersson came from a poor background and is considered a proletarian author. His poems are still popular in Sweden.


Sofia Karlsson singing "Till my syster", words and music by Dan Andersson:

And here's one of Dan Andersson's Baudelaire translations, "Moesta et errabunda", performed by Sofia Karlsson with Göteborgs Symfoniker. The music is by Sofie Livebrant.

Baudelaire's original poem, along with some English translations:

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Thursday, October 06, 2016

Bitter almonds

Prunus dulcis, var amara, near Perpignan, 29th September 2016 

We spotted this almond tree growing wild beside a lane, and (as usual) stopped to break open a few kernels and get a wild snack.

YEUCCH!!! They turned out to be bitter almonds, so we spent the next twenty minutes rinsing and spitting trying to clear every bit of that appalling taste out of our mouths.

We each probably ate no more than 0.1 of an almond.

Prunus dulcis is native to the Middle East, India and perhaps N. Africa. Wild almonds in the native regions are variously bitter and toxic. The sweet variety lacks these toxins and is cultivated all over the world in appropriate climates.

Almonds have been cultivated in places like France and Spain for so long that they are now a characteristic part of the wild flora of those regions. A proportion of the wild trees, like the one we sampled, revert to producing amygdalin and are known as "bitter almond" (Prunus dulcis var amara).

Apparently we might have been forewarned, if we'd known what to look for, by the shorter and broader fruits of the bitter variety, compared to the sweet one.

Bitter almonds are toxic to some degree. Individual fruits vary widely in their potency and it therefore isn't possible to give a recommended daily limit, as acknowledged in this Committee on Toxicity statement on bitter apricot kernels (which contain the same substance, amygdalin or laetrile, as bitter almonds). The authors limit themselves to saying that if you eat no more than one kernel per day you are probably safe, but if you consume 10 per day it puts you in the hazardous range as set by the WHO and the Council of Europe.

The following article, from the WHO Food Additives Series (30), drafted by Dr G. Speijers

has this to say:

"In a case-study a 67-year-old woman collapsed after ingestion of a slurry of 12 bitter almonds ground up and mixed with water. She recovered after treatment in the hospital. The average cyanide content was 6.2 mg HCN/bitter almond (Shragg et al., 1982).

The consumption of 60 bitter almonds is deadly for an adult. For young children, however 5-10 almonds or 10 droplets of bitter almond oil are fatal (Askar & Moral, 1983)."

The following article by Nadia Chaouali et al has more to say on the matter.

This is in a Tunisian context. In Tunisia bitter almonds are used in the production of some widely popular foods, especially orgeat syrup aka almond syrup.

These discussions also take place against the background of claims made in the 1970s-1980s that amygdalin, aka laetrile or B17, is effective in the natural prevention of and dissolution of cancerous tumours. The general idea is that it selectively attacks cancerous cells more than healthy ones.  (I should emphasize that amygdalin's medical history goes back a lot further than the 1970s; centuries if not millennia...)

Selling B17 health products is now banned in the USA and in the EU.

You'll find a lot of polarized debate about this on the internet, but mostly it quotes the conclusions of others and interprets without any real authority. Do we have here an absurd, unsubstantiated and dangerous claim by a bunch of quacks; or the sinister suppression of a valuable and simple natural remedy in order to preserve Big Pharma's rip-roaring profits from even more dangerous chemotherapies?

Here are two articles from opposite sides of the debate that, though I can't claim either as authoritative, seem informed, detailed and temperate.


Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Holiday reading - September 2016

Área La Marina (near Villajoyosa), 26th September 2016

I have grave doubts of this post being of any interest to anyone on earth but myself. I'm making these hasty notes, however, with the thought that I might otherwise never get round to mentioning some of the books here.

Reading when on the road is a fitful business - a matter of a few pages here and there, e.g. under the dim 12v bulb just before going off to sleep. I took books with me, bought more, explored others at my Spanish gaff, and I finished only one.

I took:

Sir Walter Scott, A Legend of Montrose. Scott's highland novel about war, published in 1819. This was the one book that I read in full. I had read it before, a long time ago, and didn't remember it well. It seemed to me much finer and more enthralling than I remembered or expected. I'll certainly do a separate post about this.

Shakespeare's Othello. Yes, I know, I've been reading and writing about Othello, to excess, already: Still, while on holiday,  I paused once more over the conversation between Iago and Roderigo at the end of Act II. Iago's pleasure. Iago's unflowery language. The unconfessional quality of his soliloquies.

Bodil Malmsten, Mitt första liv. A kind of autobiography by this contemporary author, with a Jämtland connection.  I read one more chapter while away: I've been reading it for about three years now.

Tomas Tranströmer, Dikter, together with Robin Fulton's English translation. Towards the end of our journey I became absorbed in this, as you already know. More posts will follow.

Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal. French dictionary at hand, I read the first twenty poems, absorbed and excited.

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart. I've got half-way through Achebe's astonishing first novel.

I bought:

David Foenkinos, Charlotte. I saw this for sale in the French motorway services and eventually bought it. Foenkinos is apparently a prolific and admired author. A novel about the tragic life of the artist Charlotte Salomon. Composed in mainly short sentences, each on its own line: an appealing format when your French isn't up to much. I've read the opening chapters: it's very good.

Julia Conejo Alonso, Peces transparentes. Spanish poetry book, published in 2012.

Approximate translation of the first poem:


There is a transparent fish
which navigates between the ricefields of India
and other brackish waters
of south-east Asia.

It's called the Crystal Fish.

In the London aquarium,
while legions of tourists
throng against the shark tank,
compressing their noses and cheeks
in order to feel the vertigo of such nearness,

two fish of crystal

exhibit in every detail
even the most recondite elements of their body
without anyone looking at them.

With the desolation and the impotence of those who know
that it serves for nothing
to offer themselves, simple and transparent.

René Negré, Memoires d'un curé de France. This was another book I saw repeatedly in the services, and eventually bought. The subject interested me: no less the series, otherwise mostly fiction, published by De Borée, with its naive-looking photographic jackets, almost like self-published books. Their wide distribution suggests something else, though. They must be aimed at a popular audience to whom the usual trappings of paperback presentation don't appeal: an elderly audience, maybe.

In Spain I browsed in:

Den unga lyriken, anthology of Swedish poetry from 1910-1940. At the apartment I wrote music for one lyric, by Dan Andersson.

I also found and read an interview with Bo Baldersson in the Costa Blanca publication Svenska magasinet. ("Bo Baldersson" is a famously unidentified author of murder mysteries, the first of which I happen to be in the middle of reading at home.)

And I read a couple of science articles in Muy interesante, my favourite light reading from Spanish newsagents.

And while I was away:

Ken Edwards kindly sent me a copy of his a book with no name. It was a very nice thing to come home to.

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Tuesday, October 04, 2016

stone sober

Autoroute food: Aire de Terres-les-Graves, near Bordeaux, 30th September 2016

I return with a head full of almonds, some of them sweet, and some of them bitter with the intensity of a suppressed cure for cancer.

I can't spin down to earth yet, and Tomas Tranströmer's poems of dreaming and waking, which I'm re-reading for the umpteenth time, have an air about them, an air like the burly October crowns of the trees as we drive back north,  a new and pressing intensity of interest.

As the bites of insects and the brush of a jellyfish begin to quieten on my skin, as the smell of diesel is showered away, I am, or someone is, that traveller with the dispersed ego who appears in Tranströmer's characteristic present tense.

In day's first hours consciousness can grasp the world
as the hand grips a sun-warmed stone.
The traveller is standing under the tree. After
the crash through death's turbulence, shall
a great light unfold above his head?

(The end of "Prelude", the first poem in Tranströmer's first book, 17 Poems )

Behind waking life there is a deeper and larger community of the sleeping, the dreaming and the dead. In this larger community we can meet each other: opposites purged of our divided cultures, languages and - that current tool of the demagogue - "national identities" (".... divided cultures and people flow together in a work of art..." as Tranströmer described his poetry). He was writing in a more blessed time than today, in some ways. This makes his poems doubly precious because no-one could write them now, but also they are limited simply by not having the problems of 2016. So it must always be.

All of these thoughts run around my reading of the following poem, from The Wild Market Square.

Nineteen Hundred and Eighty

His glance flits in jerks across the newsprint.
Feelings come, so icy they're taken for thoughts.
Only in deep hypnosis could he be his other I,
his hidden sister, the woman who joins the hundreds of thousands
screaming 'Death to the Shah!' - although he is already dead -
a marching black tent, pious and full of hate.
Jihad! Two who shall never meet take the world in hand.

(The Shah, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, was deposed in February 1979. He died in exile in Egypt on 27th July, 1980.)

Tranströmer links, but sharply contrasts, his two protagonists: the newspaper-reading male whose emotional life is so  cold that he himself believes it is rational thinking; and the impassioned woman (seen, no doubt, on the TV) who has joined a celebratory mob in Iran, so seemingly emotive and irrational that she yells for a death that she knows has already happened, what's more in a cause directly against the interests of Iranian women, as you might reflect from a westernized perspective. (It was well known, however, that the Shah's human rights record was far from spotless, to say nothing of the royal family's relentless accumulation of personal wealth.)

From our later perspective TT's foray into the Islamic world feels  - a weasel word, this - a touch "simplistic";  he has not witnessed so much debate around the word "jihad" as we have done since; and we can sense that the Islamism glimpsed in his poem is still something comfortably far away and picturesque. The marching black tent is not marching in the direction of the Stockholm archipelago.

But even though I feel these things, they somehow don't harm the poem. In fact you could say that subsequent events have sharpened it.

This depends partly on how we read the final words. Do this ill-assorted pair of people truly mould the world (as, since the poem was written, Islamism may certainly be said to have done), or do they merely take the world in hand in a helpless, clutching kind of way? But the poetry seems to refuse to make this distinction,  just as it refuses to regard dreaming as unimportant compared to waking. This poem still carries the neutral sense of the image I quoted from that early poem: of grasping a warm stone.

In most ways I approve that refusal to make the distinction. But I also think I see why Tranströmer's influence on mainstream poetry is as potent as it is. *

His poems overwhelm us with the simple strength of their acceptance of the imaginative life.  But by proposing the life of nature and dreams and the dead as valuable topics, he also offers, for those who want to find it, a most reassuring apology for educated western lifestyles.

[Translations by Robin Fulton.]

* Wikipedia continues to report that there was a mixed response to his Nobel Prize in 2011, but this is extremely misleading. Of course the newspapers sought out the usual cynical quotes about the committee being Eurocentric in general and Swedocentric in particular. But it was swiftly apparent that these quotes betrayed an embarrassing ignorance of contemporary poetry. Tranströmer may have been Swedish but he was not, as the newspapers too readily assumed, an obscure figure outside Sweden. On the contrary, his poems had been very widely translated and very widely admired: his international reputation was right up there with Ashbery or Walcott. Indeed he exemplified the ideal of being both a local poet and a world poet: something much dreamed of by mainstream poets and readers, but not often so unequivocally achieved..

 Morning tea and shower: Área de servicio La Ribera, near Oropesa, 27th September 2016

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Sunday, September 11, 2016

On the road

I'm on the road. Blogging will start again in early Oct!

Friday, September 02, 2016

Peter Yates: "The Explorers"

Border of the Mud Desert near Desolation Camp, 1861. Painting by Ludwig Becker

[Image source: . State Library of Victoria, ID H16486.]

In the locale of “The Explorers” the hands on the clock don’t move, but the compass needle does.

Explorers moving through the vivid lands
Of moveless time: inebriated urge
Towards the dreamed Americas, the end
Where last magnetic rays of sunlight bend
Till vertical and horizontal merge
In final contact, touch of ungloved hands.

The axis in the mind projecting hope,
The folded mountains and the cobalt sea
Emerge; shadows of sunlight on the rock
Seduce the senses, wind the moveless clock,
Give birth to wishes, fears; the will to be
Immortal, and the twitching fingers grope.

The compass moves, glint of the Phoenix eye;
November and the melancholy wind,
Snow on the marbles tombs: elastic flesh
Expands, consumes; fakes with its fuse a flash –
The image, vivid, flickers in the mind,
The vibrant, beautiful, exciting lie.

These are the first three of twenty-nine stanzas. The stanza-form is, by Yates’ standards, simple; six five-stress lines rhyming abccba. There are only a few internal rhymes (tombs, consumes). There are harsh chatters of prolonged alliteration, like a burst of machine-gun fire. The “iambic” flow is a constant in all his poems. Each of these stanzas gathers a sense of purpose towards the middle, when the rhymes are closer together and we feel we’re “getting somewhere”, and then loses it, reaching its firm full stop with a feeling of dissatisfaction. The form makes each stanza seem self-contained and isolated from its fellows.  

Progression is by noun-phrases. Nouns are preceded by the definite article, though this is somewhat disguised by elision of particles (for example, in the first stanza we assume “the inebriated urge”, “the last magnetic rays”, “the touch of ungloved hands”). Nevertheless, the appears 155 times in “The Explorers”, and a/an just six times. What’s going on here? When we read “the vivid lands” our faces are held down, coerced by the poet’s imagination. But when we read (as above, in the third stanza) “a flash”, a familiar context is implied: we are referred to the world outside the poem in which we have seen other flashes; this is but one of them. Yates makes very sparing use of that context in his early poems. You might like to know that the next time we run across a, it is “a stifled cry”, and the next time “a shriek”. These three faint animal interjections are pitifully crushed by the engine of the poem.

“Snow on the marbles tombs” may be a misprint, but don’t be too sure; tombs may be a verb. Verbs have a tendency to seem like nouns in this moveless operation. Several stanzas (like the first) manage without any direct verb. But one verb – “move” – is insistent.

Again the compass moves; the visions pass
and burn like spectral fevers in the eye.
The thunder speaks, the fatal axis moves,
Recedes, slips off its safe and formal grooves
To where gigantic mirrors multiply
Only the total being of their glass.

O wanderers, betrayed by swamp and slime,
Receding from alacrity of youth
To move in lonely circuits of the brain
Down pensive passages, propelled by pain
In search of moments motionless with truth,
Adrift, lost in the wilderness of time.

Explorers moving through imagined space
Led by equator’s never ending line
In search of pyramids and plangent curves;
Creating new sensation with the nerves;
New instruments to heat the blood’s decline;
New formulas to hide the ego’s face.

Explorers sinking in bewildered blood
I watch you through my lenses, see you move
In search of final islands, and that place
Where lost and rigid parallels embrace
With kiss and crackle of electric love
The separate polarities of good.

Insensate time: clock without face or hands,
Revolting torso with the abstract eye
Made hideous by hate, I see you move
In moveless moments in which secret groove
Towards what formula or frozen lie
Only the lucid madman understands.      

                                                            (Stanzas 7-11)

What, then, moves? The explorers, the compass, the mind’s eye; the poet’s mind and the reader’s eye. 

They move through a dense thicket of repetitions, deterring progress. The poem does the opposite of providing a mimesis of journeying; it provides, instead, a non-progressing obstacle. There is nothing to drink; it is the explorer’s own need that inebriates.

But voyagers on gleaming parallels
Still reach towards the image in the mind... 

(Stanza 16)

“Gleaming” gives us a sense of relief. Like the “kiss and crackle of electric love”, it falsely suggests something drinkable, and also something speedy – the gleam, as it were, shoots ahead of the voyagers. But this is deceptive relief under a burning sun. Consider that arresting phrase in Stanza 2, “shadows of sunlight”.

“The Explorers” continues Yates’ long quarrel with thought, and is a toxic mindscape. Nothing is fixed there (we have already seen the November wind), and much else comes within its compass; including, with some reticence, war-time Britain.

            And in the towns, where death becomes an art...             (St 21)

But Yates keeps his focus on the tangle of the self:

Where being is itself the subtle crime                             (St 25)

His own mind, no doubt one of the hungry explorers too, snags on non-progressive images of futility:

And speedboats with no destination move
Tracing their foaming circles of false love                       (St 28)

So much for speed. Through much transmutation, Yates’ poems remain fixed on their object, and this idea is still lurking forty years later in the slow barge of the memorial to his wife:

Metaphor burns me with the edge of dreams.
Love holds in need, by net of names
The intricate and simple, grief and joy,
Green water rippled by a swan.

A hand, a shape, a scarf of hair -
Pure drunkenness of open air!
I follow where the dead have gone
The hidden path once printed with your name.

You wander in the dark
Beyond the comfort of my arms!

Through scalding tears of reverie
I watch the lion sun with blazing mane
Creep from his cloud, and slowly pace
The secret meadow where we used to lie –
He draws across your flickering lake
The Yew tree’s shadow like a sombre barge.

(In Memoriam E.Y.)

[Peter Yates was born in 1911. I hope it is fair to consider him (though such considerings always involve a falsifying diminution) as a poet of the forties. At any rate, his first two collections were published by Chatto in 1942 and 1943, and gained some attention. In many ways they will seem to be characteristic of the era (in Britain); “The Explorers” is from this period. One further collection appeared in 1951; he also published two verse plays, which were staged. Petal and Thorn, a low-key selection of old and new poems published by Peter Ward, appeared in 1983, and that’s what I’ve been reading. This is all I know about his career as a writer, but the inescapable impression is that he was talked about in the early forties as someone with “promise”, a “poet to watch” in the words of Stephen Spender. And then time went by and, gradually, he wasn’t. The blurbs carry less authority. If Graham Greene is only quoted as saying (of The Assassin) “in his minor characters and prose scenes Mr Yates shows himself a dramatist of great promise”, then one is bound to guess that Greene had serious reservations about the verse part of the play. The modest later poems were I imagine written for Yates himself.

There is a brief comment on his work on p. 192 of A. Trevor Tolley’s The Poetry of the Forties (1985).


“Peter Yates (1914 - ) was born of British parents in India and educated at Sevenoaks School and London University. Before the Second World War he lived a wandering life in America, Sumatra, and …” (Ian Hamilton, The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English, 1996). Unfortunately, my library doesn’t have a subscription, so I can’t read the full article. This sounds like our poet, though the date of birth doesn’t quite match my information.

There are online references to a Peter Yates Selected Poems titled The Garden Prospect and published by Jargon (in Kentucky) in 1980.  I think this might be a different poet (born in 1909 according to one online page).

The relatively well-known British architect Peter Yates (1920-1982) is someone else. So is the British director Peter Yates (1929-2011) (Bullitt, The Saint).

And I think it’s another Peter Yates again, a Californian, who wrote articles and books about contemporary music (e.g Twentieth Century Music, 1967) and organized important concert-series in LA. ]




Wednesday, August 31, 2016

C.S. Lewis: The Problem of Pain (1940)

The jacket of the Fount edition, as read by thousands of 1970s era Christian students

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) was a many-sided author. His earliest publications, up to 1930, were tentative attempts at establishing a career as a poet; but clearly he had (to put it kindly) the wrong sort of talent. In1929 he experienced a conversion, gave up his militant atheism and adopted a forthright Christianity. His academic career was by now in full swing. The 1930s saw his first scholarly books, Rehabilitations (a collection of separate essays) and the formidable Allegory of Love (1936), which was very well received and established him near the head of his field, which was Medieval and Renaissance literature. The creative urge had not left him and he also produced an allegory of his own conversion called The Pilgrim’s Regress; this was a poor book, but he was to make up for that later when he covered much of the same ground in Surprised by Joy.

His great run of popular Christian books began with The Problem of Pain (1940). Scholarly work continued, including the magnificent English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (1954; the one book of his that I have never stopped reading, and probably never will)*. He also wrote a science fiction trilogy, and of course the popular Narnia books for children; and much else. All his work speaks in the same, instantly recognizable, voice; but there is some variation. During the war years, which also produced The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, and the Preface to ‘Paradise Lost’, there is an enviable boldness, even stridency, which must have made instant converts of many and angered many more.

To speak personally, I don’t care anything for the science fiction books with their thinly-disguised religious themes, and I don’t care deeply for the hastily-written Narnia series – The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair are the ones I like best. His other fictions are not outstanding either. The excellent Screwtape Letters is best regarded as a series of colourful sermons. Even Till we have faces (1956) only really pleases me because it is at the opposite extreme from the stridency of the early 1940s**. Lewis learnt from his own experiences in an oddly child-like and definite way, and his books from the mid-1950s onward are the work of a wiser and humbler man: Reflections on the Psalms, The Four Loves, A Grief Observed etc.

His writing remained anathema to many progressives, though; they were scarcely able to compete with the immense though lightly-carried learning of books such as Studies in Words and The Discarded Image, but they took infuriated exception to a tone that implied on almost every page an utterly different outlook from their own. The fury was all the greater because the fundamental simplicity of his views allied to an outstanding limpidity and graciousness of expression produced a dangerously populist cocktail. They knew he would be listened to, and it didn’t seem fair. It is said that Lewis failed badly in his debate with a professional philosopher following the publication of Miracles. The perception of those who said so was that his cocksure cleverness went with a complete failure to understand the point of any twentieth-century intellectual or artistic movement; he could only make snide populist remarks like a journalist writing for the Daily Mail. It remains a disturbing paradox, the more so because (having been so deeply influenced by Lewis during my late teens and early twenties, when I was both a medievalist and a born-again Christian) I am afraid that I share a good many of his blindnesses, and am in some fundamental way arrested in an imaginary Lewisian world of values even though my conscious opinions were never conservative and are not now religious. (I should add that, though Lewis has been anthologised in collections of Conservative thought, I do not remember him ever pronouncing on a party-political matter; he seems to have been perfectly sincere in his professed lack of interest in topics of that sort. At the same time there’s no doubt who would have been most upset by his assaults on e.g. modern educationalists***.)

The Problem of Pain, at its best, can be illustrated from this passage about guilt from the chapter entitled “Human Wickedness”:

A recovery of the old sense of sin is essential to Christianity.... [Without it,] the result is almost bound to be a certain resentment against God as to one who is always making impossible demands and always inexplicably angry.... Why not live and let live? What call has He, of all beings, to be “angry”? It’s easy for Him to be good!

Now at the moment when a man feels real guilt – moments too rare in our lives – all these blasphemies vanish away. Much, we may feel, can be excused to human infirmities: but not this – this incredibly mean and ugly action which none of our friends would have done, which even such a thorough-going little rotter as X would have been ashamed of, which we would not for the world allow to be published. At such a moment we really do know that our character, as revealed in this action, is, and ought to be, hateful to all good men, and, if there are powers above man, to them. A God who did not regard this with unappeasable distaste would not be a good being. We cannot even wish for such a God...

In short, the “grandfather in Heaven” picture of God appeals only to those who have no sense of a living God at all, like myself. This seems to me a completely persuasive argument. Of course you can say that when someone feels guilty it often makes them feel better to be particularly self-condemnatory, taking comfort in their inner high-mindedness. But this says nothing about the truth of the insight. A real God must be, whatever else, inexorable.

The chapters on Hell and Heaven carry the same conviction. Lewis was immediately criticized for defending the doctrine of Hell, which was presumably an embarrassment to other propagators of the faith, but this criticism amounts to nothing. Anyone can see that hell does indeed exist in many places on earth, and therefore its metaphysical dimension poses no new difficulty. The Christian story makes no sense if there is no hell. How can anyone be moved by Good News unless things are seen to be bad? Why would anyone busy themselves with saving sinners unless there is something to save them from? Why is there a church entrusted with a mission if it is impossible for anyone to turn away from God? It is true that hellfire preaching and hellfire parenting had repulsively abused one element in that story, and laid the whole Christian system open to the most violent objections, but for churchmen to just go quiet about it was a trifling evasion, which merely demonstrated what most people already sensed, that if you wanted to learn the truth about anything it was no good asking a priest.

Here are some sentences from the chapter on Heaven.

You may think that there is another reason for our silence about heaven – namely, that we do not really desire it... There have been times when I think that we do not desire heaven; but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else... Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for? You have never had it. ... The thing I am speaking of is not an experience. You have experienced only the want of it. ... Always it has summoned you out of yourself. And if you will not go out of yourself to follow it, if you sit down and brood on the desire and attempt to cherish it, the desire itself will evade you. “The door into life generally opens behind us” and “the only wisdom” for one “haunted with the scent of unseen roses, is work.” This secret fire goes out when you use the bellows: bank it down with what seems unlikely fuel of dogma and ethics, turn your back on it and attend to your duties, and then it will blaze. The world is like a picture with a golden background, and we the figures in that picture. Until you step off the plane of the picture into the large dimensions of death you cannot see the gold. But we have reminders of it. To change our metaphor, the black-out is not quite complete. There are chinks. At times the daily scene looks big with its secret.

If I call this a great piece of literary criticism (e.g. of George Macdonald, whose words are quoted) I may seem to be unfairly limiting the kind of writing that it is. I don’t intend that. We tend to have a mental picture of primary writing (“literature”) that is in some way directly engaged with life, and then
of secondary writing (“criticism”, “commentary”, “review”) that stands lower in the hierarchy and only addresses itself to details of primary writing, so that engagement with life has become flickering and indirect. Unfortunately the grey bulk of any university library tends to confirm that hierarchy. But “literary criticism” as I mean it here (and Lewis is a prime example), if it moves away from the original writer’s words, does not thereby move further from life, but only sideways to get a different angle, and though further from one aspect of life nearer to another. In the same sense I might want to say that Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a great literary criticism of Plutarch.

But at the same time I do intend a limitation of my praise. Unquestionably the heaven suggested in this chapter is a heaven that can be believed in and can be wished for (its very definition, indeed, is that it is wished for). The limitation is that the kind of yearning evoked by Lewis is (I suspect rather than know) an experience that only a few people can instantly relate to. If it is, as one might immediately judge, really an inchoate desire to return to the womb, then that might make it more universal. But for it to seem like a possible hint of heaven one needs to conceive it in its developed manifestation. That what evokes the yearning in Lewis’ own examples (“the smell of cut wood in the workshop or the clap-clap of water against the boat’s side”) reflects Lewis’s own tastes and nationality and gender and interests is not an argument against it. But it appears to me that a yearning for the unrealizable is not an intrinsic part of human experience. I don’t know; I admit that, personally, I recognize what he’s talking about very well, but then, I share many of his backgrounds. Human experience is overwhelmingly various.

As an outline of Lewisian Christianity, then, the book seems to me a success. I shan’t bother much about local criticisms; the chapter on “Animal Pain” seems to me to depend on some quite extraordinary views about non-human life – one gathers that Lewis had no interest in nature****. But on the general subject that his book purports to treat, i.e. suffering, I think his success is very mediocre.

Lewis was writing when Europe was again at war. He had served in World War I, and had ample personal experience (not only in combat) of pain and suffering, but the book steers clear of evocation; as the quotations may show, it treats pain rather intellectually. If we are not religious philosophers, there is indeed something rather offensive about the expression, “The Problem of Pain”. You wouldn’t talk about “the problem of genocide”, or the “problem of starvation”, as if these things were all very well in their own way but posed one or two thorny issues for a believer. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a theological issue, but I think that Lewis, clearly unwilling to deal with instances in detail, has actually failed to confront it. He thinks he can reduce e.g. Ivan Karamazov’s terrible denunciation in Dostoyevsky’s novel to a few bare logical assertions. But perhaps suffering cannot be reduced in that way. There are, if you want to put it that way, at least two “problems of pain”, one for the sufferer and one for the witness. In fact there are a million problems – they will not be “boiled down” in the way that Lewis hopes.

The natural and right human reactions to suffering are, for a sufferer, to endure it if possible; for a witness, to alleviate it if possible, or else to lament it. Lewis’s book may well have cheered sufferers and helped them to endure – in fact I’m sure it did, though he disclaims both the intention and the skill. But his argument proves far too much, and really leaves no room for lamentation, grief, horror or shock. One must be appalled at Ivan Karamazov’s accounts of  children being tortured; but how can God’s world contain what one must be appalled by? And what redemptive salvation is imaginable that can ever right these wrongs? It is a fundamental challenge to the Christian story of a good God.

An instance of where I think Lewis’ book is at its weakest is his argument against the additiveness of pain. He argues, basically, that in a waiting-room where two people have toothache, no-one is experiencing “2 x toothache”; the pain threshold of one individual sufferer is all the pain there ever can be. He actually uses this example of toothache, and I think you’ll agree that it tends to  trivialize the matter. People do not question the benevolence of God because of toothache. They question it when whole communities are ruined, when villages are burnt, when countries starve, when cities are sacked or when people are herded into a forest to dig their own graves.

Therefore we ask, Monarch of all that lives,
Firm in your heavenly throne,
While the destroying Fury gives
Our homes to ashes and our flesh to worms –
We ask, and ask: What does this mean to You?

(Euripides, The Women of Troy trans. Philip Vellacott)

It's quite true that each individual can suffer no more than the worst a soul can suffer. But we are more than individuals; the wholesale destruction of communities, families, cultures, ways of life, invoke feelings that are different from those in which a single person suffers torment.

Lewis, I think, was not much of a community person. His books are almost entirely free of patriotism or a sense of nationhood, which is rather refreshing. He was not close to his parents (his mother died when he was nine) and he had no children. As a scholar he had risen untrammelled out of Ulster, the place of his childhood, and he lived and breathed the fellowship of his colleagues; an excellent but rather anomalous kind of community. So perhaps it was not so hard for him to see all our attachments to local culture and local identity as things to be yielded up, being merely human and temporal constructs in the face of an overwhelming and universal vision of God.

Some of the shortcomings of his treatment of suffering must have become plain to him personally when, after the loss of his wife from cancer, he wrote A Grief Observed. The earlier book is in the end frivolous. In it he pretends to write about pain in order to give an athletic display of the strength and joyousness of his conviction. It was a calling-card.  


A C.S. Lewis sentence and its influence

I used to read C.S. Lewis incessantly when I was eighteen, and there are several sentences in C.S. Lewis’ works that have influenced me deeply. This is one of them:

The truly wide taste in reading is that which enables a man to find something for his needs on the sixpenny tray outside the secondhand bookshop.

In fact, like other deeply influential sentences that became part of my everyday mental furniture, I didn’t remember it particularly accurately. I remembered it, approximately, as “the real sign of a good reader is being able to find something to read on a railway station bookstall”. The variation isn’t really all that important, but my rewording glossed over any question of what is meant by “needs” in connection with reading. 

So far as this ideal of a good reader is concerned, its lifelong influence on me is pretty obvious, e.g. in the post you are reading now. I cultivated an interest in whatever books came to hand, and found after a while that I never really needed to go and buy new books; I preferred to loiter in the charity shops, since I was just as fulfilled by what I found there as by any imaginable alternative. (It also saved my purse and it appealed vaguely to ecological principles at the same time.)

This self-education in the books of the charity shop eventually provoked my notion of relativism. Since it was in fact possible, rather easily possible, to find something to read all the time, perhaps (I surmised) no book was really any better than any other; it was all about the reader. You could (I theorized) in principle harvest the same fruit from a worthless detective pap novel or a book of freezer recipes as from Julius Caesar and Leaves of Grass ; after all, wasn't the whole of culture encoded in the language and the moves made within any book? And what grounds had I to condemn what might seem dull or crude when I didn’t know the full context, when I didn’t write such books myself and wasn't part of their natural audience and didn’t even know what it’s like to write such books or read them in their intended context?

I don’t think Lewis would have approved that particular extension of his thought. He plainly believed in real values, and on his sixpenny tray he was certainly not envisaging freezer recipes. I think his example is carefully chosen, because he really thought ther was a lot more worth reading on the sixpenny tray (some Scott or Stevenson, for instance) than in fashionably abstruse shelves full of the Bloomsbury authors and modernism and other things he didn’t feel interested in grasping, like Wittgenstein. But I didn't absorb that part of the message. 

I didn’t remember the sentence accurately, and of course I didn’t remember its context either, at least not consciously. It comes from the chapter about “Affection” in The Four Loves (1960). Lewis remarks on the indiscriminate nature of affection and how (unlike the less humble loves) its objects are not selected; for their intelligence or sexiness, for example. We develop affection for someone because they just happen to be around. In that context he starts to talk about what it means to have a wide sympathy for other people; it isn’t demonstrated by having a large number of friends or lovers (because friends and lovers are chosen) but by a ready sympathy with people that you meet with but probably wouldn’t choose. That’s when the analogy with reading comes along. 

The whole chapter is good, but this is about me and the sentence. Forgetting the original context, I have extended the message I took away with me from the second-hand bookshop to other art-forms, nature, places, weather and people. It’s a seductive analogy but like all analogies it has falsity stitched into it. It all works very smoothly so long as you aren’t trying to accomplish anything. If things (or people) aren’t tools, why indeed should you get hung up about value? It sounds amiable, but is limited; of course the alternative sounds terrible – the way I’ve chosen to present it – people as tools! But reading books (and living with humans, too), these activities are diminished if they are just contemplative idylls, just about the mild pleasure of watching the clouds race and not about making things happen. I know this, but my nature didn’t want all that trouble; shrugged aside the unattractive risks of accusation or confrontation. That’s why I find the sentence a good example of what influence, too often, amounts to. You seize the little moment that fits how you already feel inclined to live. This is waking life, but it works in much the same way that dreams get composed out of materials that cohere because of multiple, stray, happy accidents. I was really influenced, but I had reasons for welcoming the influence.  

But still, Lewis was a great reader, so long as “great” means being open to wonder. A colleague remembered him, shortly before his death, enthusing boyishly about Les liaisons dangereuses; not a book you might have expected him to take to. “Why has no-one told me about this before?” he demanded. 



* I picked it up to check the date of publication – it happened to be already out of the shelves – and lost most of an evening reading the first chapter for the hundredth time. [Aside from its own merit, it also produced a fine pendant in the form of John Carey's essay "Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Prose", printed in English Poetry and Prose 1540-1674, ed. Christopher Ricks (Sphere History of Literature in the English Language, Vol. 2). Carey, and to some extent Ricks, are post-Lewis critics quite as much as they are post-Leavis critics, and Carey's essay consistently has Lewis in view; chiefly in his energetic assaults on works canonized by Lewis such as More's Dialogue of Comfort, Sidney's Arcadia and Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity. Though Carey reaches quite opposite conclusions from his master, he reads these books in the same kind of way, as living repositories of values that must be earnestly proclaimed or torn down. When neither likes the book, they say merely the same things (Lyly's Euphuism), but Carey enjoys negative critique as much as Lewis did and he is prepared to sacrifice Bunyan altogether in order to spend a few pages ripping Walton's Lives to shreds; Carey on Bunyan would have taxed the author much more.]  

** It is fair to say that great swathes of Christian heartland do not agree with me. The impressive 140 reader reviews for Till We Have Faces on speak of it as a life-changing discovery. (The largest number of reader reviews that I have come across is 267 for Raymond Feist’s Magician: Apprentice.) [NB I wrote this in 2004. In 2016, Till We Have Faces has 526 reviews.] 

*** What Lewis did proclaim, at least when he was at his most unworldly, was essentially the Augustinian argument of De Civitate Dei. The nature of earthly government did not matter; one should be law-abiding, but what really mattered was the heavenly city. In principle this view implies political quietism; it lends no support to the idea that one kind of government is better than another. But in practice this means lending no support to political change, and in particular denying the aspirations of Marxist belief. A more developed political view grew out of studying Hooker and others for the “OHEL”. But the word “conservative”, even without a capital letter, creates a false idea of the kind of writer Lewis was – he was not a follower of ideas but a creator of them. It’s true that he often presented his views as if he was revering some tradition or orthodoxy, but this only reflects his myth-making temperament. His ideas were really a new development building on romanticism and in particular some of its nineteenth century offshoots (e.g. George Macdonald). For Lewis the ideas of the past were not a vague cloud of worthy sentiments, as for a conservative, but a dynamic intellectual conflict in which he eagerly participated as if it were all still alive (there are no “dead issues” in Lewis’s world). Wholesale acceptance or rejection of the past would have meant nothing to him; he grasped too much of the detail.  He defended what he cared about, and tended to re-invent it as he did it.

**** But he did, some years later, write a very powerful anti-vivisection essay; the grounds were philosophical and humanist.



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