Thursday, November 27, 2014

William Wordsworth (1770-1850)


This post is mostly about The Excursion, the massive poem that Wordsworth wrote in middle age, but I've given it a little prelude (ha, ha) about a much better-known poem from fifteen years earlier.


Strange Fits of Passion (1799)

Upon the moon I fixed my eye,
All over the wide lea;
With quickening pace my horse drew nigh
Those paths so dear to me.

And now we reached the orchard plot;
And, as we climbed the hill,
The sinking moon to Lucy’s cot
Came near, and nearer still.

Wordsworth wrote the Lucy poems while in Germany. This one, more than the others, is anecdotal. (Since then we've become so browbeaten by first-person anecdote in poetry that we take the form for granted.)

Portrait of Wordsworth by William Shuter, 1798

[Image source: Cornell University Library, where the portrait now resides. The likeness was taken on 26 April 1798, at Nether Stowey (according to Dorothy's Alfoxden Journal). William Shuter, a Bristol artist, was staying there; Coleridge must have organized the sitting. Five months later Wordsworth set off for Germany.]


The moon sets every day, but we don’t often see it do so. Canonical literature, though it's always going on about sunsets, virtually ignores the existence of moonsets, except in this poem.

We usually notice the moon when it’s full, and the big (or apparently big) moonrise that occurs soon after sunset is often remarked on. But a moonset near the full would occur near dawn, the coldest part of the night when (at least in temperate climes) we tend to sleep on, and even if we’re out and about the spectacle is usually lost in the mist. The little white ghost of a waning moon is hardly ever noticed when it sets during the hours of daylight. The most impressive moonset I've seen was a lazy moon on a cold winter night which became yellower and bigger, and finally just after midnight a smoky red as it dropped into the west. So rarely have I noticed a moonset in my fifty years that it hadn't really occurred to me that the setting moon must often go through the same colour changes as the setting sun.

If the moon is going to set earlier in the evening, not too many hours after sunset, it must be a brand-new sliver of a moon, which is probably not what most readers envisage while they're reading this poem.

However, the hill makes a difference. After crossing the “wide lea” westwards, with the moon spreading its light, Wordsworth’s lover starts to ascend rather sharply, and “Lucy’s cot” is on a ridge. Thus the moon could seem to “set” when still comparatively high in the sky. Wordsworth had often noticed the sharpness of Lakeland’s high night-horizons, and e.g. famously written of how “the stars moved along the edges of the hills”.

My horse moved on; hoof after hoof
He raised, and never stopped:
When down behind the cottage roof,
At once, the bright moon dropped.

To realize the emotional charge of this, it’s worth going out on a suitable clear evening and making it happen. The roof should be quite close, perhaps less than a hundred meters away; it happens just as the lover arrives. The moon falls “at once” because it is the lover’s relatively rapid approach, not the moon’s own descent, that causes it to drop out of sight. In those nights without any streetlights, the instantaneous change in the light would have been dramatic. If you are suitably sensitized, it still can cause a shiver.   

Read more »

Labels:

Sunday, November 23, 2014

happy christmas

Abies nordmanniana

Christmas trees for sale in Asda. Someone had torn off a branchlet, which I eagerly salvaged.

When I was a child the Christmas tree both in Sweden and England was invariably Norway Spruce (Picea abies) and what people of my generation will fondly remember is pricking their fingers on the sharp needles, the difficulty of preventing the heavier baubles from slipping off the rather thin glossy foliage, and later sweeping up all those needles, which tend to fall off in the dessicated air of modern houses. Of course the Norway Spruce is also a much-loved component of the Nordic forest.

Anyway, the luxury Xmas tree of today, as seen here, is Caucasian Fir (Abies nordmanniana, sometimes called Nordmann Fir); the needles are stouter, pleasant to handle, and usually don't fall off. The labels say that you can plant the tree out when Christmas is over. I'm a bit sceptical about that, since most silver firs dislike town air, but apparently on basic soils it does better than Norway Spruce.


Read more »

Labels: ,

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Henry Fielding: Tom Jones (1749)


Tom (Albert Finney) and Mrs Waters (Joyce Redman) in the 1963 film of Tom Jones

Tom Jones (1749) was the most admired of eighteenth-century novels, at least by the English novelists of the nineteenth-century "great tradition", and it is still admired today (for example, by Michael Schmidt in The Novel: A Biography). Yet it has not always proved easy to write about. This piece picks up from one of the classic essays, by William Empson in 1958 (it's on JStor).

In what I'm going to say there are spoilers from the outset, and I seriously urge you not to look at this if you're just embarking on a reading of Tom Jones. To prevent accidental contamination, there now follows a short advertising break!

*

RENEWABLE IS SERIOUS.

On that afternoon [in May 2014] Germany generated 74 percent of its electric needs from renewable sources. (Bill McKibben in the New York Review of Books)

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/jul/10/climate-will-we-lose-endgame/


Read more »

Labels:

Sunday, November 09, 2014

The Coxwold-Gilling Gap



The view towards Kilburn White Horse. The Hambleton Hills in the distance, and the Howardians at our back.

This was on a walk from Kilburn to Byland Abbey on 9th August.

The Coxwold-Gilling Gap is a rift valley formed at the end of the Cretaceous period. The land fell 500-1000ft between the two parallel faults where the Hambleton and Howardian escarpments now face each other, about a mile and a quarter apart.
Read more »

Labels:

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Hester Lynch Piozzi: Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson (1786)

Hester Lynch Piozzi in 1785-86, by an unknown Italian artist


[Image source: National Portrait Gallery]

Chronology

1709  Samuel Johnson born
1735  Marries Elizabeth (Tetty) Jervis
1740/41 Hester Lynch Salusbury born
1746-55 Johnson’s Dictionary
1749   The Vanity of Human Wishes
1750-60 The Rambler, The Adventurer, The Idler
1752  Tetty Johnson dies
1759  Johnson’s mother dies. Rasselas
1763  Johnson meets James Boswell
1763  Hester marries Henry Thrale.
1765  Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare.
         Johnson meets the Thrales. A year later, he moves in with them.
1775  Journey to the Western Islands
1777-81 Lives of the Poets
1781  Henry Thrale dies
1783  Hester moves to Bath. Last meeting with Johnson (April).
1784  Hester marries Gabriel Piozzi (July). Death of Johnson (December).
1785  Hester writes Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson in Italy (Summer).
          Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides.
1786  Anecdotes published.
1791  Boswell’s Life of Johnson
1809  Gabriel Piozzi dies
1821  Hester Piozzi dies

The main points arising from this chronology are as follows. Johnson was in his mid-fifties when he met the two young friends who did so much for him and who would become his chief biographers (Boswell and Hester Thrale disliked each other, by the way). His wife had died more than a decade earlier. The literary achievements that had established him were in the past; he was semi-retired. In another sense, his life may be said to have begun again. During the remaining twenty years of his life he lodged most of the time with the Thrales, in fact for most of each week throughout their marriage. Hester was usually pregnant; the Thrales had twelve children. Henry Thrale’s death, the burden of supporting an increasingly difficult Johnson, and his disapproval of the liaison with Piozzi, brought all this to an end. Hester’s life, in turn, began again. She was about 24 when she first met Johnson, and about 42 when they last saw each other.

She revered Johnson; he was always her friend; and she had nursed him through serious depressions. Still, her book is quite candid; there was something monstrous about him. At first his presence in the house (she calls it her confinement) was “terrifying”, towards the end “irksome”. Boswell tries to canonize him, portraying his prejudiced, bullying and often unintelligent conversation as if it was a dialogue in heaven.

Read more »

Labels: ,

Alexander Pope (1688-1744):An Essay on Man

Alexander Pope in 1716, portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller

[Image source: Philip Mould Historical Portraits, which describes how portraits of Pope concealed his bowed and crippled appearance.]

An Essay on Man in Four Epistles

[The epistles were published separately in 1733-34. Apparently written in 1730-31, but perhaps Pope deliberately gave them a Horatian three years to mature.]

The madness of superfluous health, says Pope in one of the chiding moments in the Essay on Man. There are rather too many chiding moments. The balance feels wrong. One did chide in such expository poems, Hesiod had done it, so had Lucretius, but Pope's lessons have not a sufficiently copious enthusiasm to excuse his lofty reproofs.  Go, wiser thou... Go wondrous creature... Fools! (he proceeds) thou fools ... Blind to truth... Cease then... - and much more in the same vein. This is not so much about enlightening the insanely healthy questioners as about telling them to shut their noise: Whatever is, is RIGHT. His paean to Order involves too much ordering people about.

Read more »

Labels:

Sunday, November 02, 2014

John Gay: The Birth of the Squire (1720)





"Gay has all the gifts of a great poet except the highest intensity of passion and imagination", I read in one of those multi-volume paperback surveys of EngLit that were so popular thirty years ago. The writer (Charles Peake) seems to be inadvertently recalling Matthew Arnold on Chaucer, and indeed it's Chaucer who is bound to come to mind - not so much Chaucer's manner as, what is yet more unusual, some kinship in the vistas opened up by the poetry - when we read such lines as the following:

Beagles and spaniels round his cradle stand,
Kiss his moist lip and gently lick his hand;
He joys to hear the shrill horn's ecchoing sounds,
And learns to lisp the names of all the hounds.
With frothy ale to make his cup o-'er-flow,
Barley shall in paternal acres grow:
The bee shall sip the fragrant dew from the flow'rs,
To give metheglin for his morning hours;
For him the clustring hop shall climb the poles,
And his own orchard sparkle in his bowles.

This is early in the poem, when Gay is still, just about, doing what his subtitle claims: imitating the Pollio of Virgil (i.e. the fourth Eclogue). Hence the sentence beginning "With frothy ale" runs parallel with Virgil's prophecy of a golden age. Nor can the beauty of such a harvest be denied. [*see Note 2] Surely Pope learnt from here the prophetic music beginning "Another age shall see the golden Ear", that would end the Epistle to Burlington? Yet Pope's  "His father's acres who enjoys in peace" is as it were ironized in advance by Gay's vision, written ten years earlier, of a golden age requiring heroic capacities for all-day drinking on the part of its chief consumer. 

Read more »

Labels:

Powered by Blogger

Nature Blog Network