Gloucester’s mock-suicide

…for, once again, the fierce dispute
Betwixt damnation and impassioned clay
Must I burn through…
- John Keats

“Damnation and impassioned clay…” Keats certainly had a way with words! But impressive though those words are, I particularly love here his use of the word “must”. King Lear is a harrowing play: fierce disputes betwixt damnation and impassioned clay, even at best of times, are unlikely to be anything but harrowing. But no matter: those of us who are under its spell feel that they must keep returning to it. And no matter how many times one sees or reads this play, each new encounter overwhelms with its terror and its pity, and its savage power.

I was eleven years old when I first encountered this play. It was at the Assembly Halls in Edinburgh, during the 1971 Edinburgh Festival: Timothy West played Lear. I am not sure how much I took in, or even how much I was capable of taking in at that age: but I took in enough. I was so excited by what I had seen, that I could not get to sleep that night. There are few single instances that one could describe as “life-changing”, but I think I can with some confidence describe that evening in such terms: my Shakespeare mania can be traced back to that performance.

Timothy West was, I think, only in his forties when he played that role in Edinburgh. Some thirty or so afterwards, I saw Timothy West, now himself closer to Lear’s “fourscore and more”, play the role again, this time in an English Touring Theatre production directed by Stephen Unwin. I am afraid I cannot give a detailed account of how his interpretation had changed over the years, but his performance was every bit as overwhelming as I remember it to have been some thirty years earlier.

I am currently reading the play in two different texts. Last year, I read Hamlet in different texts – the two Quarto texts (the so-called “good Quarto”, and also the “Bad Quarto” for completeness), and the Folio – and convinced myself that when more than one legitimate text exists, then we must treat them as different versions of the work: no purpose is served in conflating them. So now, to King Lear: as with Hamlet there are two good texts – the First Quarto, of 1608, and the First Folio, printed after Shakespeare’s death in the 1623; and there are sufficient differences between the two texts to indicate significant revisions. I’ll try to compare the two texts once I have finished reading them, but for the moment, I am drawn once again into this fierce dispute betwixt damnation and impassioned clay. And there’s one scene in particular in this fierce dispute that, even after forty and more years of repeated reading and viewing, I find puzzling.

It occurs in Act 4, shortly before the famous scene in which the blind Gloucester encounters the mad Lear on the heath. Edgar, Gloucester’s exiled son, leads his eyeless father: the father is unaware of the identity of the man leading him, and, in despair, wants only to die. Edgar pretends that they are at the edge of a cliff, and delivers a magnificent vertigo-inducing description of what it is like to look down from the imagined heights. Gloucester, thinking himself to be on the edge, leaps forward, only to fall on the level ground. When he comes to, Edgar approaches him again, this time pretending to be another person; and he tells Gloucester that he is now at the foot of the cliff, having fallen from the top, and that, but by some miracle, has remained physically unscathed. He adds also that the person Gloucester had been with at the top of the cliff – himself of course – had appeared to him from the bottom as some sort of fiendish supernatural figure.

This episode has always struck me as bizarre. I frankly do not understand it. Edgar playing these games with his sightless father makes no sort of sense at all: what is he trying to achieve? He tells us that he is doing all this to cure his father from despair, but how all this tomfoolery could achieve such an end, or even why he thinks it could achieve that end, is far from clear. It is utterly bizarre.

And yet, it is a scene that haunts the mind. I do not understand it, and I cannot see how it fits with what I understand to be the themes of the play. But I would not even think of cutting it from performance. After all, Shakespeare did not remove it when he revised the work: he clearly thought it important.

Am I missing something here? Or is this scene – like Charmian’s “Ah, soldier!” - one of those Shakespearean miracles that defy analysis? I do not know. Analysis is important, certainly, but it is salutary perhaps to keep in mind that a work of this stature has about it a mystery; and that even the most trenchant of analyses cannot pluck out the heart of that mystery.

“The Girls of Slender Means” by Muriel Spark

Has ever an author been more appropriately named, I wonder? For the novels of Muriel Spark do indeed sparkle. They sparkle and they scintillate with brilliance and high spirits. And yet, neither the brilliance nor the high spirits obscure the very serious nature of her themes. The Girls of Slender Means is, in these respects, very characteristic of Spark. Here, she is writing about very serious themes indeed – about death, about faith and the lack of it, and, I think, about the evil that lurks within the everyday; and yet, none of this diminishes the sheer ebullience of the writing. The characterisations are adroit, the milieu superbly evoked without the need of extended descriptive passages, and the plotline – jumping backwards and forwards in time so insistently that one can never tell whether the scenes set in the past are flashbacks or the scenes set in the future are flash-forwards – is organized and paced to absolute perfection. By the end, one feels like applauding the author for her virtuoso performance. For a Muriel Spark novel is a performance: hers is not an art that hides art, but, rather, an art that draws attention to its own brilliance: display of her novelistic brilliance is, indeed, part of the intended effect. And yet, even given all this, there is something about this novel, something I find difficult to account for, that leaves me vaguely dissatisfied.


There are certain artists whose imaginations are by nature expansive, and there are others whose imaginations contract. As with most such dichotomies, these are not the only possibilities, but, rather, two poles of a spectrum: nonetheless, they can be, I think, useful categories. When it comes to literature, modern taste tends, I think, towards concision: various books, especially those written in ages more leisurely than ours, are castigated for being “too long”, though rarely if ever is any book from any period criticised for being “too short”; and the glib though frequently made criticism “needs a good editor” is based on the hopefully mistaken assumption that a “good editor” always recommends cutting rather than expanding. But whatever modern taste may be on this or on any other matter, each work of art should be judged in terms of the artist’s aesthetics: it is as foolish to criticise a Mahler symphony for being “too long” as it is to criticise a Sibelius symphony for being “too short”.

As a novelist, Muriel Spark is towards’ Sibelius’ end of the spectrum – at least, as far as concision of material is concerned. The one novel of hers amongst those I have read that essays a larger canvas is The Mandelbaum Gate, and this I found her least convincing: having achieved all she can with her characteristic economy, she seems to find vast areas of the canvas that needed still to be filled, and she appears unsure what to fill it with. In consequence, much of the novel is filled with unnecessary and frankly rather tiresome intricacies of plot, equally tiresome knockabout comedy, and depictions of individual psychology that seem, even in a novel that is by the standards of most other writers merely of medium length, over-extended. The characteristic wit and ebullience seem missing, or, at best, diluted.

But here, in The Girls of Slender Means, she is on more familiar ground: the canvas is small, and there is no empty space that requires filling. Most of the action of this novel takes place in London in the summer of 1945, in the months immediately following VE Day. However, given the hithering-and-thithering time scheme, we know almost from the start that one of its central characters, Nicholas Farringdon, later becomes a Catholic missionary and is killed – or “martyred”, as we are told – on some far-flung shore. We see Nicholas Farringdon through most of this novel not as a Catholic missionary, nor even as a particularly religious man: but we know that he will later become a religious man; and we witness the events that change him.

The scene is a boarding house for young ladies in Kensington. The very first sentence tells us that immediately after the war, “all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions”: these were girls of very slender means, but nonetheless maintaining as best they can the gentility of their class. Each of these girls is depicted with but a few of brush-strokes: we are very far here from the intricate probing of characters’ minds that we find in the works of, say, Henry James or Edith Wharton. But these few brush-strokes are all applied with exquisite skill and assurance. And there emerges through all this a picture of evil within the mundane and everyday that is as potent as those which emerges in the much longer works of James or of Wharton – in such works as, say, The Portrait of a Lady, or The House of Mirth.

The novel never loses its lightness of touch and its delicious eccentricity, but none of that prevents the climactic sequence from being truly horrific. An unexploded bomb goes off, and the girls of slender means are trapped inside a dangerously burning building: the only way out is through a very narrow window through which only the girls of extremely physical slender means can escape. Another escape route is found, but for all the girls to escape is a race against time. And it is at this point that Nicholas Farringdon perceives the evil that changes the course of his life.

Both the conception and the execution are beyond reproach: it is not often that such seriousness of matter can be addressed with such unfailing lightness and wit. But there remains something that I continue to find unsatisfactory: why does Nicholas turn to religion after this experience?

It could be said that I find myself puzzled by this question because I do not myself adhere to a religious faith, but I don’t think that’ll do. Yes, Nicholas turns to religion because he is affected by what he sees; but, as far as I can see, what he sees could just as well have turned him into an atheist. Different people can, of course, react differently, often radically differently, to the same thing; but whatever it is in Nicholas that makes him react in this particular manner is not, I think, something that can be understood without a painstakingly detailed examination of the kind of person Nicholas was; and Spark’s novelistic aesthetic does not, I think, allow for such painstakingly detailed examination. Her brilliantly concise style and her scintillating wit and sparkle are all qualities that make this novel so wonderful; but it is also these qualities that prevent a question that seems to me to be of central Importance from being answered, or even, for that matter, addressed.

This is a problem I find myself often running into in novels by writers professing religious faith. It is not the faith that I find problematic, but, rather, the frequent reticence on the part of the author in explaining how this faith affects the characters’ thinking and their outlook. Why, for instance, does Sandy in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie become a nun? I can accept that she does; but if the author does not explain to me what goes on in her mind that prompts her to make this decision, it is something I am forced to take merely on trust. There is a point where the author seems to say to the reader: “Unless you subscribe to and understand this particular theology, you are not going to understand this.” And for me, this is unsatisfactory: it is the novelist’s job precisely to make us understand, to take us into the minds of others, even others who may be very different from ourselves: if a character subscribes to a specific faith, the novelist must show us what it is like to live with that faith, what it is like to see the world through its lens; and silence on that aspect leaves, for me at least, a great hole in the middle. There is a great deal to enjoy here, much to admire and even to applaud; but in what seems to me to be the central point of the work – not the stimulus that causes Nicholas to become religious, but, rather, how that stimulus works on him to that end – there is a most disconcerting silence.

“Lapis Lazuli” by William Butler Yeats

Given how much of my reading is verse rather than prose, I have written very little about poetry on this blog. This is because I am not really sure how best to write about poetry. But it has to be done: there’s no point having a blog about my literary interests and banishing poetry. So, with extreme diffidence and with not a little trepidation, I have decided to embark upon what I hope will be a regular feature: Poem of the Month. Each month, I shall be choosing some poem that takes my fancy, and write about it in a manner I hope will not be too boring for the reader.

(I think I had better keep away from modern poems, as I may run into copyright issues, but there’s more than enough richness in what is available in the public domain.)

As ever, these are not scholarly exegeses: I am no literary scholar. These are, as with any other writing on this blog, merely the personal thoughts and impressions of an interested and, I trust, not too imperceptive a reader.

So with all that out of the way, let’s get started. For the first poem in what I hope will become a regular feature, I have chosen a late poem by one of my favourite poets – “Lapis Lazuli” by William Butler Yeats.

I have heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow.
Of poets that are always gay,
For everybody knows or else should know
That if nothing drastic is done
Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out.
Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in
Until the town lie beaten flat.

All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop-scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.

On their own feet they came, or On shipboard,’
Camel-back; horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilisations put to the sword.
Then they and their wisdom went to rack:
No handiwork of Callimachus,
Who handled marble as if it were bronze,
Made draperies that seemed to rise
When sea-wind swept the corner, stands;
His long lamp-chimney shaped like the stem
Of a slender palm, stood but a day;
All things fall and are built again,
And those that build them again are gay.

Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in lapis lazuli,
Over them flies a long-legged bird,
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving-man,
Carries a musical instrument.

Every discoloration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent,
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

Before I start, it is worth saying that a poem expresses thoughts and feelings and sensations that cannot be expressed otherwise; so, naturally, any attempt to express the meaning of a poem in words other than the ones the poet uses is bound to be a failure. This is particularly true of a poem as profound and as complex as this: it is far more than the sum of its possible interpretations. Even to paraphrase any part of this poem is to simplify grotesquely, to iron out its various complexities and ambiguities.

Having got all that out of the way, here goes.

What is this poem about? In a nutshell, it seems to me to be about that paradox of “tragic joy”. We can experience a tragedy as profound and as bleak as Shakespeare’s King Lear or Sophocles’ Oedipus, and yet come out of it strangely exhilarated, uplifted. To Yeats, this curious reaction to the witnessing of human suffering points to rather complex issues not only about human psychology, but about the nature of destruction and of creation, and the elusive interactions between them. In this poem, Yeats juxtaposes the cataclysmic waves of destruction and of suffering that humanity has faced and continues to face, with the joy of rebuilding, of creating out of the ashes. (Perhaps ironically, this poem itself was written on the brink of a worldwide cataclysm: it appeared in 1938.)

A key word in this poem is the word “gay”. As the poem progresses, this word acquires different levels of meaning. But one meaning it doesn’t have here is the meaning we tend to associate nowadays with the word: this poem is not about sexuality.

In this poem, the word “gay” stands as an antithesis of the tragic. When the word first occurs, it denotes merely the bright, the cheerful, the buoyant – perhaps, even, the frivolous. By the end of the poem, it stands for everything that is life-affirming, everything that speaks for the value of humanity, and of human effort, even in the face of the most horrendous facts of death and of suffering.

Throughout this poem, there are changes of tone – almost as if the different sections are spoken by different voices. Yeats does not modulate between one voice and the next: he juxtaposes them. I tend to imagine the opening section spoken by a grumpy old git over brandy and cigars – a sort of bar-room rant of a Telegraph-reading retired-colonel type who’s possibly had a few too many . The derogatory term “hysterical women” is certainly sexist – by our standards, offensively so – but it’s consistent with the tone in this section. The first four lines have simple rhymes, but their rhythms are deliberately clumsy. Most other poets would have gone for “I have heard hysterical women say…”, but Yeats breaks up this easy rhythm with the insertion of an extra unstressed syllable – “I have heard that hysterical women say”. This puts the rhythm a bit off kilter – this is not going to be a traditional tum-ti-tum that we are all so comfortable with. It also changes the meaning: the speaker is having a rant not about what he has heard these women say, but what he has been told they say.

And what do these “hysterical women” say? Effectively, that given the horrors of life, art is frivolous and irrelevant. The whole concept of art is referred to contemptuously as “palette and fiddle-bow”: the contempt is not that of Yeats, nor even that of the brandy-swilling retired colonel, but of the “hysterical women”. There is irony in the fourth line. “For everyone knows or else should now…” This “everyone knows” is akin to Austen’s “It is a fact universally acknowledged”. The seventh line – “Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in” – is a reference to a popular ballad – “The Battle of the Boyne”: we don’t need to know the reference, but we do need to register the colloquial ballad-like tone of this line. It is noticeable also that in the second quatrain, the rhymes almost disappear: previously, we had say/gay, and bow/know: now, we have done/in. out/flat. The pairs of words end with the same consonant sound, but have different vowel sounds leading up to them. Perhaps the brandy is having its effect on the retired colonel.

Through this voice, what is being expressed is clear enough: mankind faces grave horrors, and in this environment, the very idea of art is pointless and frivolous. The retired colonel probably disagrees with such a view (in his opinion, they’re held merely by “hysterical women”), but the poem now moves on to examine these issues in tones very different from the one we have hitherto heard.

Before we go further, let us briefly consider the rhyming and the rhythms of the poem. The whole thing is arranged into units of four lines (quatrains), each with an abab rhyme scheme, and with others, we have half-rhymes, or even quarter-rhymes. Sometimes, as in the first four lines, Yeats emphasises the rhyme scheme by making the rhymes exact rhymes, and often putting pauses (commas, full-stops) at the end of lines; at other times, he goes for a greater sense of fluidity by employing partial rhymes and enjambments. This flexibility allows him to vary the tone as he pleases. There are four beats to each line, but Yeats avoids tum-ti-tum monotony by varying the numbers of unstressed syllables. We could go into more detail on Yeats’ prosody, but since I would very soon be out of my depth were we to do that, let’s move on to the content. (Of course, the impact of what is said depends on how it is being said, but we’ll try to consider this as we go along.)

“All perform their tragic play”. The tone is very different now. It is the tone of serious contemplation, and those two pinnacles of the tragic art, Hamlet and King Lear, are explicitly evoked:

There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia

These great tragic figures can be seen in ordinary, common humanity – “all perform their tragic play”. These are not remote figures on a stage: they are ourselves. The last word of the first line of this section (“play”) recalls that pivotal word in this poem – “gay”. It is not explicitly rhymed with “gay” here – that occurs a few lines later: but the reader’s inner ear should catch the reference. Even when contemplating the profoundest of tragedies, the tragedies of Hamlet and of Lear, Yeats gives us an echo of the word “gay” – an echo of that which is the opposite of tragedy.

But now, Yeats makes the observation that even at the deepest point of human tragedy, Lear and Hamlet don’t “break up their lines to weep”. And he returns to that word “gay” with the astonishing pronouncement: “They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay”. At this point, we have to re-examine how we understand this word. It had appeared first in a dismissive context: “artists who are always gay” – artists who are light-hearted, frivolous. But can Lear and Hamlet be regarded in such terms? Surely not! But Yeats insists on using that word “gay”: he repeats that word in a slightly different form in the next line – “Gaiety transforming all that dread”. Again, there is an element of colloquialism in the expression “all that” (as in, say “…and all that jazz”), but the thought here is startling: Lear and Hamlet are actually the opposite of that which is tragic –they are “gay”; and far from enacting tragedy, they present its opposite, thus transforming tragedy.

The reason Yeats gives for this is simple: even at the moment of greatest tragedy, the tragic protagonists do not break up their lines to weep: they speak their lines clearly, observing its rhythms and sonorities; even here, they delight in the beauty of those lines. And it is this focus on the beauty “transforms all that dread”: the creation of that beauty is the best, indeed, the only answer humanity has to all that oppresses it.

Yeats is in danger here of sanitising human misery and suffering – or even of trivialising it: it’s as if he is saying “Yes, humans suffer, but look – we can create pretty things out of all this, so all that suffering doesn’t really matter.” It’s important to appreciate, I think, that Yeats isn’t saying this. Indeed, the next few lines of the poem make quite clear that the poet knows and understands the nature of human suffering:

All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.

In that first line, Yeats is not talking about “all men”, but rather, “all that men have aimed at”. The syntax here is more than knotty: it is, indeed, ungrammatical. It is an impressionistic sketch of human tragedy, and its fierce intensity comes as a huge surprise given the colloquial nature of much of what we have read so far. “Heaven blazing into the head” is one of those phrases which, once read, is never forgotten. (And note the echo of the word “gay” in the long “a” sound in the first syllable of the word “blazing”: even when that word isn’t explicitly stated, it is present; and here, the sound is not so much echoed, perhaps, as thundered.) I often wonder if Yeats wasn’t referring here obliquely to the first lines of Euripides’ Medea:

If only a flaming bolt from heaven would pierce my head!
(From the translation by John Davie, published by Penguin Classics)

I have never seen this connection being made, but I can’t help feeling that Euripides’ play is lurking here in the background.

Immediately after these magnificent lines, Yeats brings us down to earth with a bump, as two of the most sublime creations of literature are brought down a few pegs: “Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages.” (I love that internal rhyme – or near-rhyme – of “Hamlet rambles”.) And yes, their magnificent blank verse could, I suppose, be regarded in such terms: Hamlet does ramble, and Lear does rage. And this brings them close to the rest of us – all of us who, according to the first line of this section “act [our] tragic play”. We are, all of us, Hamlet and Lear, Ophelia and Cordelia. If this line brings Lear and Hamlet down to our level, it also raises us up to theirs. We too, like Hamlet and Lear, face sorrow, loss, and death: our lives too are tragic.

In the remaining lines of this section, the syntax is jumbled, and deliberately unclear:

Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop-scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.

What cannot grow by an inch or an ounce? The extent of the tragedy? The gaiety into which it has been transformed? All of this? Extending that old metaphor of the stage being the world, Yeats imagines the plays all ending at once – i.e. an apocalyptic end of human life itself, when “all the drop-scenes drop at once upon a hundred, thousand stages”; even if this should happen, there is a mysterious “it” which cannot grow: the tragedy is tragic only in human terms, not cosmic: the cosmos will carry on all the same, indifferent quite to the Lears and the Hamlets, the Ophelias and the Cordelias.

And yet, in amongst all this, there lurks an important point: the joy in the creation of beauty “transforms all that dread”. It doesn’t nullify the dread: the dread is still there, and always will be there, and it is horrific. But we also have the ability to transform, to create; and in this act of creation, there is something that is close to a sense of joy – a “gaiety”, as Yeats would put it.

Does this “gaiety” redeem the inevitable tragedy of our lives? That is up to each individual to answer. Much depends, I suppose, on what we mean by “redeem”, or, indeed, whether we believe in the possibility of redemption at all. But Yeats has given us so far a sort of answer to the “hysterical women”: whether or not we believe that the joy of creation can compensate for the inevitable tragedy of human life, that joy, that “gaiety”, is as much a fact of human life as is the tragedy. The act of creation may not abolish the tragedy and the horror, but this tragedy and horror can then give rise to human activity that embodies something that is their opposite.

In the next section, the tone changes yet again. In three lines, Yeats evokes an epic canvas. The change of tone is marked by a first line which, although it still has four beats, seems very far from the underlying iambic tetrameter (ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum):

On their own feet they came, or on shipboard,
Camel-back, horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilisations put to the sword.

A picture is evoked of tragedy not merely of individuals – of Hamlet and Lear and Ophelia and Cordelia – but of entire peoples, entire civilisations – catastrophes on the greatest of scales. What happens when a civilisation is destroyed (as ours, too, no doubt will be some day)?

Then they and their wisdom went to rack

Yeats now evokes the legendary sculptor Callimachus, of whose work nothing now remains:

No handiwork of Callimachus
…… stands.

But between the “Callimachus” and the “stands”, Yeats uses his own art to imagine for himself, in a few exquisite lines, the nature of Callimachus’ art:

No handiwork of Callimachus
Who handled marble as if it were bronze,
Made draperies that seemed to rise
When sea-wind swept the corner, stands.

The next quatrain imagines more of what Callimachus’ art may have been like, and then concludes:

All things fall and are built again,
And those that build them again are gay.

Again that word “gay”, and again (the repeated word “again” echoing the word “gay”) it occurs for maximum emphasis at the end of the line. And we have to ponder what the word means here, now, in this context. It certainly doesn’t mean “frivolous”. Neither is Yeats referring here to the aesthetic pleasure one gets from a work of tragic art – where tragedy itself, paradoxically, is transformed to “gaiety”. He is here referring to mankind’s ability to rebuild itself after even the greatest of disasters, the greatest of destructions – just as his own imagination has allowed him to recreate in words what had been lost of Callimachus’ art. The losses are to be lamented; but equally, man’s capacity to rebuild must be celebrated, for it is “gay”.

Now, we enter the final section of the poem. Having considered works of Western art –King Lear and Hamlet and the lost art of Callimachus – Yeats now turns to a work of Oriental art, and describes in detail a Chinese sculpture curved in lapis lazuli. As ever, Yeats does not modulate from the previous section into this: he merely juxtaposes. How this sculpture relates to what he had been talking about earlier is not at first entirely clear.

He takes six lines (one and a half quatrains) to describe the piece.

Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in Lapis Lazuli,
Over them flies a long-legged bird
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving-man,
Carries a musical instrument.

The tone here is completely neutral – a description of a static scene (carved literally in stone) more or less without comment. We seem suddenly transported from the hurly-burly of change and activity on a vast scale to a scene of calm; from the dynamic to the static; from a world of violent passions to one of equanimity. The very static nature of this Chinese sculpture contrasts with the dynamic imaginings of Callimachus’ sculpture in the previous section, where the very marble had seemed to be in motion.

The next (and final) section starts with two lines that complete the half-quatrain that had finished the earlier section, and relates the calm of this stasis to the themes encountered earlier in the poem:

Every discolouration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent
Seems a water-course or an avalanche….

The small details here can be seen as microcosms of larger events. But still, it remains unclear how this carving relates to the upheavals of tragic power, and destructions of entire civilisations.

The tone now modulates from an impersonal to a personal note, and with this modulation comes a new vowel sound – a sound that had been absent from the poem since the very first word: “I” – the long “i” sound. This is given special force by being placed at the end of the line, and two lines later, we get the word “sky” to rhyme with it. This vowel sound, in the last few lines, seems to establish a new tonality, as it were: in the last two lines, as if to emphasise this new tonality, the word “eyes” appears no less than three times. However, the word “gay”, with its long vowel sound, is not overwhelmed by this new sound: that long “a” sound appears in the last words of lines 2 and 4 in the final quatrain (play/gay), and the very last word of the poem is, of course, “gay”. The repetition of this word is relates this static Chinese carving back to the dynamism of King Lear or of Hamlet, for, like those plays, this sculpture too is “gay”. But once again, the word means something a bit different here.

For this Chinese sculpture depicts not the dynamism of tragic passion, but the curious detached equanimity with which these passions can be viewed. Does this detachment imply a lack of feeling, and indifference? Or is it indicative of some transcendent wisdom that senses an elusive gaiety beyond the turmoil of human affairs? Yeats tells us that he “delights” (another repetition of that long “i” sound) in imagining these men looking down from the heights on to a scene of tragedy below, listening to “mournful melodies”, with gaiety in their ancient, glittering eyes. It is a haunting image, and a very uncomfortable one. Should suffering be looked on with equanimity? With gaiety? Most of us, I think, would answer “no”. But is this gaiety too far removed from the aesthetic satisfaction we take in seeing King Lear? Is it not a just celebration of the human ability to create, to rebuild?

The ending of this poem – indeed, the whole poem itself – is disturbing in its many paradoxes, in its relating of human suffering and misery to human creativity, and its ability to renew itself. As with any great poem, it strikes many different notes all at the same time, and to insist on any one tonality denies the possibility of the others. All these paradoxes seem to me concentrated in that magnificent final quatrain:

One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

As a footnote, I recently watched a DVD of the late Claudio Abbado conducting Mahler’s 6th symphony – among the darkest and most tragic of works – and I couldn’t help noticing that when a passage was particularly well-executed, Abbado would break into a spontaneous smile – even though the music was as dark and as bleakly tragic as may be imagined. There was such an obvious joy in the very act of creation: and yet this did not distract from the tragic nature of the work; somehow, this joy co-existed with the tragedy. And I could not help thinking then of this poem.

I’ve never been so insulted in all my life

My attention was recently drawn to a website where, on submission of a sample of your writing, you will be told which author’s style your writing most resembles. Naturally, I was intrigued. Being an unashamed narcissist, I was hoping that my writing may possess the elegance of Austen, or the clarity of Stevenson, or even perhaps – who knows? – the meticulous perfection of Flaubert, or the extravagant flamboyance of Dickens, or the epic splendour of Lawrence at his finest.

So I submitted the entire text of an earlier post from this blog, and you know which writer their programme thought my writing most resembled? Dan Brown. Yes, Dan Bloody Brown.

Now, I think I could reconcile myself to possessing Mr Brown’s literary talents if I were to be compensated with Mr Brown’s literary wealth, but to possess the former without the latter is really the worst of all possible worlds.

I feel emotionally shattered.

Reflections on a Facebook meme

Those of us who have Facebook accounts may have seen a meme currently doing the rounds that asks:

The BBC believes that most people will have read only 6 of the 100 books below. How many have you read?

Those of us with more time on our hands than sense to know how best to use it may even have completed the questionnaire, ticking off those titles we have read and checking our score against those of our Facebook friends. I know I have.

There is no indication of what, if anything, this list is intended to indicate. If it is intended as a measure of how well-read or badly-read we are, it does seem, to be sure, an odd selection of titles. Is there really anyone who has read, for instance, both Ulysses and The Da Vinci Code? Or would want to? It seems highly unlikely to me. After all, the former can only be enjoyed by readers who love language and delight in its usage, while the latter can only be enjoyed by those who do not care much if anything at all about language: it is hard to see where the two may intersect.  So what can a list containing both these titles possibly indicate? What could all these titles possibly have in common?

This is the point where I should have shrugged my shoulders, thought no more about such nonsense, and gone off to spend my time more wisely by … oh, I don’t know … by reading a good book, I suppose. But good sense never was among my strong points: I went to the BBC site to find the source of this list. I couldn’t find it.

The list contained in this Facebook meme seems remarkably similar to the results of the BBC Big Readers poll from some eleven years ago: I haven’t  made a detailed comparison between the two – I’m not that obsessed! – but it seems fair to infer that whoever put together that later list had based it on the earlier. In the Big Read poll, the BBC had asked the British public to nominate their favourite book. I cannot after all these years remember whether they had stipulated that the book nominated must be a work of prose fiction, but certainly, neither non-fiction, nor poetry, nor drama featured in the final results. The poll was quite a big thing at the time; and in case anyone should think celebrating books is elitist – a vile and unpardonable thing to be, of course, either then or now – an article in BBC’s in-house listings magazine, Radio Times, helpfully informed us, as I remember, that this poll was intended to discover what we really liked, rather than what critics tell us we should like. And thus the BBC’s democratic credentials remained unscathed.

Not that I look down on something like the Big Read. Far from it. Literature, as we all know or should know, isn’t a competitive sport, but most people realised, I think, that this poll was really no more than a bit of fun, and took it in that spirit. As a beneficial side effect, it spawned on the BBC site a discussion board, which very soon became a lively place with all sorts of people talking about whatever book they wanted to talk about, and at whatever level they were happy with: both inverted snobbery and right-way-up snobbery were conspicuous mainly by their absence. I made some very good friends on that board, many of whom remain friends still, long after the BBC decided, for reasons not entirely clear, to pull the plug on the board.

As for the poll itself – all those books we really like rather than the ones critics tell us we should like – it ended up a rather predictable mish-mash: mainly modern and contemporary novels, with a sprinkling of a number of titles from the nineteenth century and the earlier twentieth century that we think of as “classics”; many books we have grown up with, and continue to hold in affection; a few highbrow titles (which presumably we do really like), and, to get it right up the critics, a few lowbrow ones also; but most, it seems to me, unexceptionably from the middle range. As one might expect, I guess. Nothing really to complain about – except for their ascribing The Alchemist to some chappie called Paulo Coelho when everyone knows it was written by Ben Jonson – but, perhaps, nothing really to get too excited about either.

While this list is a reasonable measure of the reading tastes of the reading public, I’m not sure that counting up from that list the number of books we have read tells us much about how well-read we are. Perhaps, to get a representative list of books one should read in order to be considered “well-read” – a representative list, since a comprehensive list of this nature would be too vast even to contemplate – we should have asked the critics after all: for sometimes, even in our democratic age, it is no bad thing to be told what we should like by people who have spent much time and effort developing their understanding and their discernment. One may, of course, end up disagreeing with their choices, but such disagreement only carries weight when one can disagree from a comparable level of understanding and discernment. Otherwise, it’s rather meaningless.

What sort of list would we have had, I wonder, if we had asked the critics? There are many titles in the Big Read list as it is that could very easily have made this hypothetical List of the Cognoscenti: few, I imagine, would quarrel with the inclusion of Pride and Prejudice, say, or of War and Peace, or of Great Expectations, or of Ulysses, in any list of great books. But wouldn’t it have been good to have had a list which, rather than confirm back to us what we already know and like, encouraged us to try out, maybe, The Scarlet Letter? Or Clarissa? Or Fathers and Sons? Or The House of Mirth? Or, if we expanded the remit beyond prose fiction, to, say, The Oresteia? Or The Odyssey? Or Njal’s Saga? Or Paradise Lost? Or, if we expanded the remit even further to include works of non-fiction, to, say, the Dialogues of Plato? Or The Histories of Herodotus or The Peloponnesian War of Thucydides? Or the essays of Montaigne or the Ethics of Spinoza?

It’ll never happen, of course. It is not so much that we resent the idea of critics as such:  after all, in this age of the internet, we are all, myself included, quite happy to become critics ourselves. What we find ourselves resenting is the idea that certain people, by virtue of their having spent time and effort applying their intelligence and their analytic skills to the study of literature, have developed keener discernment and understanding than the rest of us.

And so, we end up merely repeating the same handful of titles over and over again, and we determine how well-read we are on the basis of how many of those titles in the list we may tick off. And we know – or, at least, I know – that the next time another such Facebook meme comes along, we’ll be falling for it all over again.

Oh, and by the way, I got 52/100 in that Facebook meme. Made me feel thoroughly inadequate when I looked at the score of some of my Facebook friends. Oh well … back to my Chaucer …

Concert in Egham on the Ides of March

I tend not to use this site for advertising, but since it’s my site, I guess I am free to break my own rules. For most of you, it won’t matter anyway: this post is aimed solely at those who live within reasonable travelling distance of Egham in Surrey, and who are free on the evening of Saturday the 15th – the Ides of March.

For on that evening, the Egham and District Music Club, of which I am currently chairman, will host the distinguished pianist James Lisney in a concert featuring the three final sonatas of Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert. The concert will be held in the United Church of Egham, on Egham High Street. You may find here  details of the concert here.

The piece by Haydn, I must confess, I am not familiar with. The Beethoven sonata is nothing short of visionary: that long variation movement with which the movement closes – and a discussion which forms one of the most memorable passages in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus – takes us into regions of sound and of feeling that had not till then been imagined.

And that final Schubert sonata – the last of the three he composed merely weeks before his untimely death – is simply a miracle. If I were given to gushing, I would describe it as balm for the soul. But since I’m not, I won’t. (How about that for a bit of paralipsis?)

You may see here Mr Lisney’s website, and the various concerts he has in his future itinerary. May I just say that our hall is a relatively small one, and it isn’t often one gets to hear a musician of such quality playing music of such quality from such close quarters.

Have I sold this to you enough? No? All right then, if, during the evening you come up to me and mention this post, I promise to buy you a raffle ticket. Now, I can’t say fairer than that!

(You may buy tickets in advance here.)

“The Rainbow” by D. H. Lawrence

Some time ago, I wrote a post describing my reactions to The Rainbow when I was some half way through it. I finished the novel a few weeks ago, and frankly confess that I find it difficult to write about. But, for anyone interested, this is the best I could do to record my impressions of this very difficult and elusive, but ultimately rewarding, novel.


In the latter part of The Rainbow, the image of a widening circle assumes particular significance. That Lawrence should give such importance to that term – using it not once but twice as chapter heading – should perhaps cause us to ponder the significance he attached to it.

In one sense, this image of a widening circle seems obvious enough: the latter half of The Rainbow is, in effect, a bildungsroman, and, as the protagonist grows up, “the widening circle” is an apt term to describe the inevitable broadening of the protagonist’s horizons. The horizons are many: social, psychological, moral. However, this particular bildungsroman is but part of a larger structure, and if we consider what the “widening circle” may betoken in terms of this larger structure, we move, I think, beyond the conventions of the traditional bildungsroman.  For Ursula, the protagonist of the latter half of the novel, is of the third generation of characters depicted: in each of the two earlier generations, Lawrence had shown couples engaged in struggles of the spirit – first, Tom Brangwen with the Polish lady Lydia; and then, Anna Lensky, Lydia’s daughter from her first marriage, with Will. Now it is the turn of Ursula to open her consciousness to, and engage with, this dreadful but vital business of living. And her world is a one broader than those the previous generations had inhabited: the circle widens not merely for the growing Ursula: it widens also from generation to generation.

With Tom and Lydia, after initial impasse, there had come an understanding. This understanding comes in a remarkable moment: Lydia takes her husband by surprise first of all by intuiting that he does not wish to be in her company; and then, by asking seriously and without rancour, as if she weren’t married to him at all, whether he wants another woman.

Suddenly, in a flash, he saw she might be lonely, isolated, unsure. She had seemed to him utterly certain, satisfied, absolute, excluding him. Could she need anything?

This new understanding that it was she, and not he, who was the more insecure, the more uncertain, the more frightened, opens a new stage in their relationship. And Anna, Lydia’s daughter and favourite of her adopted father, perceives this:

Anna’s soul was put at peace between them. She looked from one to the other, and she saw them established to her safety, and she was free. She played between the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud in confidence, having the assurance on her right hand and the assurance on her left. She was no longer called upon to uphold with her childish might the broken end of the arch. Her father and her mother now met to the span of the heavens, and she, the child, was free to play in the space beneath, between.

It is often debated whether fiction has ever depicted a happy marriage: perhaps commentators ought to consider the relationship that develops between Tom and Lydia, the consummation of their spirits celebrated under the arch of the rainbow, that ancient symbol of God’s covenant with mankind.

But for future generations, things are different: with each succeeding generation, the circle widens. Anna and Tom, almost from the start, find themselves locked in the most dreadful conflict. There have been novels before depicting marital conflict: indeed, given that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, novelists have found no end of rich material in this theme. But Lawrence, in his depiction of this difficult marriage takes us into new and, I think, hitherto uncharted regions. And Lawrence knew it. During the writing of The Rainbow, he wrote to Edward Garnett:

It’s all crude as yet … but I think it’s great – so new, so really a stratum deeper than I think anybody has ever gone in a novel.

It was a bold claim to make. Compared to the drama or to poetry, the novel was still a relatively new form, but already its achievements were considerable: nineteenth century novels, especially those of England and France, had anatomised society and human consciousness to quite extraordinary depth, while Russian novels, appearing then in Constance Garnett’s translations, must have seemed to open up entire new vistas. And yet, Lawrence was confident that he was delving “a stratum deeper”: it’s an interesting image to employ. He was delving beyond the consciousness itself. And he knew it. He was depicting those forces that operate beneath our consciousness, those forces that are so very elusive and nebulous in their nature, the ebb and flow of which are so fleeting and so intangible as to seem scarcely intelligible. Indeed, the reader may choose to question the very existence of these subterraneous forces. But in Lawrence’s world, they exist: here, heaven and earth are teeming about us.

If Middlemarch is permeated with moral concerns, The Rainbow, in contrast, is more religious than moral in feel. Not, perhaps, religious in a conventional sense – although Lawrence has no compunction in using such words as “God” or “soul”; but religious in that it is aware of presences both in the heaven and the earth that is teeming about these characters, and also in their own selves. In the chapter entitled “The Cathedral”, Anna and Will, locked seemingly in a mortal combat the terms of which are never clear, even or perhaps especially to themselves, visit Lincoln Cathedral. Will, deeply attached emotionally to certain values of an ordered spirituality that is represented by the cathedral, is excited, and, indeed, moved. But Anna, realising that the cathedral and what it represents have a special significance for her husband, but without being able to specify precisely what it that significance is, rebels precisely against those very values: all she takes delight in is a carved face, a “plump, sly, malicious little face carved in stone”, which she insists must have been the sculptor’s wife:

“You hate to think he put his wife in your cathedral, don’t you?” she mocked, with a tinkle of profane laughter. And she laughed with malicious triumph.

She had got free from the cathedral, she had even destroyed the passion he had. She was glad. He was bitterly angry. Strive as he would, he could not keep the cathedral wonderful to him. He was disillusioned. That which had been his absolute, containing all heaven and earth, was become to him as to her, a shapely heap of dead matter – but dead, dead.

The conflict between the two is terrible, and the language used to describe it is intense, extreme. Some readers may even find embarrassing language of such passionate intensity, and find it over-written; or they may recoil from such scenes as that in which the pregnant Anna dances naked in her room to her unseen gods; but for Lawrence, those dark regions beneath our everyday consciousness could not be depicted any other way. The conflict between Anna and Will, unlike that between Lydia and Tom of the previous generation, cannot be resolved: but eventually, they learn to live with that conflict remaining unresolved. As the previous generation passes away, Anna and Will produce children, become old. And though their conflict remains unresolved, its rawness diminishes, and they discover, possibly to their own surprise, a strange sort of respect for each other:

Anna was not publicly proud of him. But very soon she learned to be indifferent to public life. He was not what is called a manly man: he did not drink or smoke or arrogate importance. But he was her man, and his very indifference to all claims of manliness set her supreme in her own world with him. Physically, she loved him and he satisfied her. He went alone and subsidiary always. At first it had irritated her, the outer world existed so little to him. Looking at him with outside eyes, she was inclined to sneer at him. But her sneer changed to a sort of respect. She respected him, that he could serve her so simply and completely.

Not for them God’s covenant of the rainbow, but “a sort of respect” nonetheless. And that’s something. Soon, the narrative focus moves on to the third generation – to the growing consciousness of Ursula.

Lawrence is often accused of misogyny. I am generally not very interested in the writer’s biography, although, from what little I know of Lawrence the man, I doubt he ever held consistently the various views frequently ascribed to him. But the writing is all that matters, as it is, after all, all that is left of him; and I doubt I have read quite so sensitive rendering, even by female writers, of the awakening and the early development of a woman’s mind. There is one chapter in which Lawrence appears, for a while at least, to return to the concerns of a more traditional realist novel: in this chapter, Ursula, still herself a teenager, takes a step that women in previous generations had not even considered for themselves – she takes a job, teaching at the local state school. And in this job, she has to face the hostility not only of the children, but also of the rest of the staff, and, particularly, of the head teacher who has taken a dislike to her. Eventually, she establishes herself by thrashing a particularly recalcitrant boy – a boy who, she later learns, has a heart condition. She achieves a material victory by doing so, but is aware that somewhere underneath, something valuable has been lost. It is a wonderful chapter, and could have made a superb free-standing short story; but somehow, one can’t help feeling that this shift in focus, even for a single chapter, on to the surface of things rather than on the dark depths below, is, in the wider context, a little out of place.

But Lawrence soon returns to the “deeper stratum”: he is now depicting the third generation, and the circle is ever widening:

That which she was, positively, was dark and unrevealed, it could not come forth. It was like a seed buried in dry ash. This world in which she lived was like a circle lighted by a lamp. This lighted area, lit up by man’s completest consciousness, she thought was all the world: that here all was disclosed for ever. Yet all the time, within the darkness she had been aware of points of light, like the eyes of wild beasts, gleaming, penetrating, vanishing. And her soul had acknowledged in a great heave of terror only the outer darkness. This inner circle of light in which she lived and moved, wherein the trains rushed and the factories ground out their machine-produce and the plants and the animals worked by the light of science and knowledge, suddenly it seemed like the area under an arc-lamp, wherein the moths and children played in the security of blinding light, not even knowing there was any darkness, because they stayed in the light.

Ursula’s consciousness too is a widening circle, widening from the security of regions well-lit into the areas of darkness. And Lawrence, who, we know from Sons and Lovers, was a writer of prose of the highest order, here stretches the language, twists it into new shapes, bends it till it strains and stresses and approaches breaking point, in order to force it to express what it is not normally capable of expressing. Sometimes, it doesn’t work, but the attempt to express is as important as the expression itself. And the point, in any case, is not to pin something down, but, rather, to give a sense of something that cannot be pinned down, a sense of its ceaseless flow. Whatever it is, of course.

The final part of the novel deals with Ursula’s relationship with the young officer, Anton Skrebensky.  Ursula herself is unsure of a future with Anton: his powerful sense of will, his strictly empirical rationality, do not allow even for an acknowledgement of anything beyond the immediate circle of light. When she first rejects him, he, despite his manliness, weeps. But they come together again, and the climactic point of the novel is reached in a sexual encounter on the dunes in which the seemingly inexpressible is expressed in terms so vivid and startling as to defy paraphrase. It is in this encounter that Anton senses that Ursula’s consciousness has widened into circles of darkness that are beyond his ken: his conception of his very self is threatened, and he, who had wept when she had first rejected him, now retreats from her in fear. The first couple depicted in the novel, Tom and Lydia, had reached a harmony under an overarching rainbow; the second couple, Anna and Will, had been locked in conflict, but had reached, nonetheless, an accommodation; but with Ursula and Anton, the circle has widened to its utmost extent and has broken: there can be no future together for them.

The closing lines are magnificent in their visionary splendour. Ursula, now alone, sees the ugly little dwelling of miners scarring the earth, and the miners themselves, “their stiffened bodies … which seemed already enclosed in a coffin”, their eyes “the eyes of those who are buried alive”. But then:

… in the blowing clouds, she saw a band of faint iridescence colouring in faint colours a portion of the hill. And forgetting, startled, she looked for the hovering colour and saw a rainbow forming itself. In one place it gleamed fiercely, and, her heart anguished with hope, she sought the shadow of iris where the bow should be. Steadily the colour gathered, mysteriously, from nowhere, it took presence upon itself, there was a faint, vast rainbow. The arc bended and strengthened itself till it arched indomitable, making great architecture of light and colour and the space of heaven, its pedestals luminous in the corruption of new houses on the low hill, its arch the top of heaven.

Lawrence isn’t finished:

And the rainbow stood upon the earth.

There are certain things I find in books that, for reasons I cannot begin even to analyse, thrill. This is one of them. Were I a better critic than I often pretend to be, I’d be able to analyse why this seemingly simple line makes on me so powerful an impact: but I cannot. So let us leave it there.


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