Monday, December 29, 2014

specimens of the literature of Sweden - tea and glögg



Swedes are notoriously heavy coffee drinkers (according to stereotype anyway) but tea does play quite a big part in Swedish culture too; and not only in the form of Lipton's Yellow Label, the brand that owns all of mainland Europe.

Particularly noticeable are the various tea mixtures that appear on sale in markets, with more or less persuasive claims to local provenance. These teas, often spicy, come into their own in winter.


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Friday, December 12, 2014

Byron: The Corsair (1814)

Episode from The Corsair, watercolour by Eugène Delacroix (c. 1831)

[Image Source: The J. Paul Getty Museum]


The exotic location of The Corsair is clearly important, just as the location of Scott’s narrative poems is important. Byron, we are persuaded, knew the Mediterranean

            Flash’d the dipt oars, and sparkling with the stroke,
            Around the waves’ phosphoric brightness broke;
            They gain the vessel – on the deck he stands. (I, XVII)

The author annotates: “By night, particularly in a warm latitude, every stroke of the oar, every motion of the boat or ship, is followed by a slight flash like sheet lightning from the water.”

[We don’t know much more about it now. The effect is due to the bioluminescence of certain protozoa, mainly flagellates. It is produced only when the water is disturbed. Its function, if there is one, has not been conclusively explained.]

When Scott wrote of Scotland, he immersed us in details of myth and tradition; in his prose he would also give us a distinct local speech. Being a variety of English, it was more or less comprehensible to those readers south of the border, but it was also revelatory; for here was a different culture in full operation. Byron had no such interests as Scott’s, and besides, his own chosen locale would have meant foreign languages. Byron’s Mediterranean was more like a psychological state; a heady feeling (at least in the Northern European mind) that comprised freedom and energy, open space, and escape - from prudence, from strait-laced moral codes, from families, even from self-interest and self-preservation.  Probably the lack of linguistic community, the sense of uninvolvement, is one of the constituent factors in why this familiar dream persists. (Corsair, like Capri, Ibiza, Sirocco, etc, would eventually become the name of a car.) The waves of the Mediterranean still whisper to us: Miss the plane home.

Byron’s poem intends to be a Mediterranean structure (that’s why Canto III begins with a Mediterranean scene pilfered from an earlier poem, whose irrelevance Byron takes care to highlight). Perhaps he succeeds, though there are elements of chivalry and lachrymosity that we recognize as Northern European. The story has something of the stiff gestures of Scott’s poor attempt at exoticism, The Talisman – think of the scene where Conrad appears before the Pacha, disguised as a pious Dervise. Yet a “scene” is just what this isn’t. Byron’s poem is best approached as a kind of process without beginning or end; a humming machine, details of whose operation can be glimpsed only by looking quickly aside; in short, as a modern poem. Because of the swirls and eddies of the undisciplined verse, The Corsair is a formidable and exciting plunge into uncharted territory.

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Sunday, December 07, 2014

John Keats: Endymion (1817)





[ John Keats (1795-1821) ]

Endymion (1817), written at speed and completed when the author was just 22, is a difficult poem to read. Keats himself observed (in his introduction) that there was something wrong with it; the Blackwoods reviewer agreed; and nothing is easier. But if, instead, we want to read it, we have to read hard.

                        No, I will once more raise
   My voice upon the mountain-heights; once more
   Make my horn parley from their foreheads hoar;
   Again my trooping hounds their tongues shall loll
   Around the breathèd boar... (I, 477-481)

Thus Endymion promises his sister, and one part of our attention is quickened, because what’s promised is the kind of stirring material from which narrative poems are usually made. That tolling of the word “Again”, however, is enough to warn us that these promises are vain. We have learnt that, in art if not always in life, “you can’t go back”.

                           the maid was very loth
   To answer; feeling well that breathèd words
   Would all be lost, unheard, and vain as swords
   Against the enchasèd crocodile, or leaps
   Of grasshoppers against the sun.     (I, 711-715)

I remember once writing a critique of this passage. I complained that “swords” leapt out of the page with excessive force, unsuitable as a comparison to the softness of “breathèd words”, and basically in conflict with what Keats is saying about how useless they are. However, there is a certain point to the contradiction. In Endymion the intention is to tell a story that passes rapidly beyond the tackle of swords and trooping hounds. We have to learn to give up their concreteness, and this is not made easier by Keats’ power of brief evocation; what he wants us to relinquish is (as not in Shelley) something that is well represented in the text itself, though always as images never as the material of the story. Indeed, there must be few poems so heavily loaded. 

The reader’s difficulties, I’m suggesting, arise from Keats’ commitment to a story that intrinsically turns its back on the solidest things; on ploughshares, trade, cottages and fishing-nets. (Crabbe’s Tales, and Scott’s The Antiquary, are nearly contemporary.)



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Saturday, December 06, 2014

Elizabeth Hervey: The Mourtray Family (1800)


I only have Volume 3 (of 4); the original owner of my copy was a certain Lord Torrington (*see NOTE), but I picked it up in a charity shop.

Coincidentally, if you look up "The Mourtray Family" in Google Books you will also get Vol 3 only.

Volume 3 begins with the family discovering the horrendous mess that young Henry has got himself into; he has fought a duel (without seconds) over a gaming debt, and fled leaving his opponent at death's door. Mr Mourtray and his daughter Emma are gravely distressed; the comic Mrs Mourtray is also distressed but insensible to the moral gravity of the situation, she is only concerned for her son's welfare. If you're able to read the blurry scan above, you'll enjoy the irrepressible Chowles adding fuel to everyone's distress. In Hervey's book this is just funny: compare it with the scene in Mansfield Park when Sir Thomas Bertram discovers the theatricals, and when Yates keeps on talking to him about the theatre while everyone else is desperate to change the subject; the painful topic is a much less serious matter in itself, but Austen makes us feel the scene as excruciating, because we are so much more deeply aware of the betrayal and shame.

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Friday, December 05, 2014

two hectic spots burned on his pallid cheeks

Acer platanifolium - red on autumn leaves


I can't expect many people to be interested in this, but it interested me. These are fallen leaves from Norway Maple (Acer platanifolium). Usually the autumn colours are golden yellow, but occasionally you find a leaf or three with dramatic bright-red splodges, usually towards the edge of the leaf.

If you know what causes this, please get in touch!


Acer platanifolium - autumn leaf with red colour


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