Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

“For love of unforgotten times”: “A Child’s Garden of Verses” by Robert Louis Stevenson

I think I must have been seven or eight, no more – a child who had been acquainted with the English language for not more than three years – when I first encountered Stevenson’s  A Child’s Garden of Verses. Our teacher at our primary school in Kirkcaldy used each week to write a poem in chalk on the blackboard, and we used to copy them into our jotters; and our homework would be to memorise that poem. And if modern sensibilities think of that as quaintly old-fashioned, or even as an imposition, then so much the worse for modern sensibilities. Memories are vague, of course, but from what I remember, I did enjoy those poems, and I cannot remember any complaints from any of the other children. And those poems have stuck in my mind ever since, for the general betterment, I think, of that mind. I look through the poems in this collection now, and there are so many I remember memorising at home and reciting in class … That one about the speeding train, for instance:

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches…

And I remember our teacher telling us how, when you read it out loud, it sounds like a train rattling along. I think that was possibly the first indication I had of poetry communicating through sound as much as through anything else. I remember my imagination being stirred on windy nights by the idea of a horseman galloping by:

Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.
Late in the night when the fires are out,
Why does he gallop and gallop about?

I was only going to give the first verse here, but now that I have done that, I can’t help giving the other verse too:

Whenever the trees are crying aloud,
And ships are tossed at sea,
By, on the highway, low and loud,
By at the gallop goes he.
By at the gallop he goes, and then,
By he comes back at the gallop again.

Yes, reading these poems at my age is tremendously nostalgic, but it seems to me that there was as at least as much nostalgia in Stevenson’s writing of these poems as there is in my reading. For, although I enjoyed these poems as a child, I am not sure that they strike me, reading them now, as poems written specifically for children. Rather, they are very much, and, I think, very consciously, poems about an adult looking back: nostalgia is not merely what these poems evoke – it is the central theme of this collection; and, inevitably, since nostalgia literally means “the ache for home”, there is, under the charm and the whimsicality, an ache, a sorrow.

The sorrow is partly for the lonely, sickly child Stevenson remembered himself to have been. There is the famous poem in which he, lying sick in bed, imagines in the patches of his bedquilt a new land on which his toy soldiers may manoeuvre; or the one where he remembers his imaginary friend; or the one where he remembers sitting on his own at the window every evening, waiting for Leerie the lamplighter stopping to light the streetlamp in front of his house; and how he wished to become a lamplighter himself once he grows up, and do the rounds each night with Leerie. Occasionally, Stevenson mentions playing with other children, but only occasionally: in most of the poems, he is on his own, imagining friends, imagining new, exotic worlds.

But these poems are not self-pitying: Stevenson grew up in a comfortable family, and he knew his background was privileged. The greater part of the sadness in these poems comes from that sense of loss we all feel when we look back on our childhoods, even though that sense of loss is for something that, for the most part, exists only in our imaginations. For our imaginations harden too, along with our arteries, and the new lands we used to conjure out of the patches in our counterpane are, in our adult years, well beyond our reach.

In the last poem in the collection, Stevenson drops the pretence that he is writing for children. This last poem is called “To Any Reader”, but actually, it is addressed to the adult reader. Here, he bids his adult reader picture “another child, far, far away”, playing in “another garden”.

But do not think you can at all,
By knocking on the window, call
That child to hear you…

And Stevenson knows the loss is not his alone. In one poignant verse, addressed to his mother, he writes:

You too, my mother, read my rhymes
For love of unforgotten times,
And you may chance to hear once more
The little feet along the floor.

This is a loss, and a sorrow, the expression of which we rarely encounter – the sorrow of losing a child not through anything so dramatic as death, but simply by the fact that the child grows up. I imagine we rarely hear of it because such a grief seems self-centred: if the parent and the grown-up child are on good terms, it seems like an unjust rebuke to the grown up child; and if not, it is, inevitably, more than tinged with bitterness. But it remains a potent grief nonetheless: the child that had delighted us so by the very fact of being a child may well have become the most splendid of adults, but some sadness inevitably remains that that delight is no more.

Another writer who captured this particular sense of loss is Bibhutibhushan Banerji, in the novel Aparajito (a follow-up to the better known Pather Panchali, and equally wondrous and moving). In this novel, Apu’s mother, Sarbojaya, dies on her own in her remote village, while the last remaining member of her family, Apu, now an adolescent, and unaware of the state of his mother’s health, is in far distant Kolkata. In Satyajit Ray’s famous film, Sarbojaya, as she approaches her end, imagines she hears her son’s voice, and she hobbles to the door and opens it; and outside, there is only emptiness: all she can see are fireflies glowing in the dark. As with so many images in this trilogy of films, that image of the glowing fireflies affects the viewer – well, this viewer at least – with an intensity that no amount of analysis can quite account for. But, marvellous though this sequence is, Bibhutibhushan, in his novel treats the scene differently. Here, Sarbojaya, at the point of death, hallucinates her son Apu has come to see her; but it is not Apu the young man as he is now: it is Apu as he had been as a ten year-old.

I remember when I first read that, I was so moved, I had to put the book down for a while to collect myself. For this is the Apu his mother had lost. Her daughter she had lost to the brute fact that all that lives must die; but her son she had lost to the equally brute fact that all that lives must change. Worldly wisdom tells us not to look back, and to keep up with the changes; but our worldly minds often cannot. And the grown-up Stevenson understands the sorrow felt by all those who share that “love of unforgotten times”.

There is nothing in these poems quite as heart-tugging as that scene in Aparajito, but neither did Stevenson intend there to be. Instead, there is charm, there is delight; and there is, it seems to me, a lingering sadness underpinning it all, a sadness that seems to me more than the consequence of my own nostalgia for those far-off days at North Primary School, Kirkcaldy.

I have never sat at my window to see Leerie the lamplighter pass by. Indeed, I have never even seen a lamplighter. But reading Stevenson’s evocation, it seems as if I have. Leerie the lamplighter has become part of my own nostalgia as well.

Some utter nonsense

The first book I remember reading was a book of Bengali nonsense rhymes, Abol Tabol (which means “gibberish”) by Sukumar Ray (Satyajit’s dad). When I was 5, I knew many of those poems by heart. Recently, in an idle hour, I wondered if I could translate one of them. This is the result. I am not very pleased with the ending (which seems to me rather anticlimactic in English) – but what the hell! – I’m not a professional translator, and this is the best I could do. Since I’ve now done it, and don’t know what to do with it, I thought I might as well stick it up here.

Our office head, a lovely chap,
Forever calm and gentle,
Who’d have thought he’d be the sort
To go completely mental?

There he dozed upon his chair
Contented as a child,
But then his nap broke with a snap –
He was raving! He was wild!

He gave a shout and rolled about,
His arms and legs went flying,
“Help, help!” he cried, “Come to my side,
“Come hold me up! I’m dying!”

“Doctor! Nurse!” some people called,
“Police! There’ll be a fight!”
Others there were more circumspect,
“Careful now! He’ll bite!”

Here and there and everywhere
Was bedlam, bash and crash,
As tumult spread, the office head
Cried: “Someone’s nicked me tache!”

Moustache stolen? What a thought!
Well, that’s not very clever!
They stood and stared: his facial hair
Seemed sprouting strong as ever.

They gathered round, and said to him,
“Look in the mirror, sir!
“Your tache has not been nicked or pinched –
“Such things do not occur.”

He raged like fire, like chips in frier,
“How dare you have the gall!
“How dare you lie! How dare deny!
“You’re traitors, villains all!

“This filthy rag upon my lip,
“This fetid, threadbare broom,
“You think I’d place this on my face?
“You think I’d give this room?

“I’ll soon teach you a thing or two –
“Come here and take a gander!
“If you opine this eyesore’s mine
“I’ll sue you all for slander!”

He moped and muttered, spat and spluttered,
And in his diary wrote:
“Never cut anyone any slack –
“They’ll all be at your throat!

“Those dunces, neds, those dung-filled heads,
“They can’t see! No-one knows!
“My tache is swiped in broad daylight
“From under my very nose!

“If I’d my way I’d dance all day
“While pulling at their taches,
“And scrape their heads with massive spades –
“Those birdbrained loons! Those asses!

“Moustaches can’t be bought or sold –
“Who mocks my tache maligns me!
“I am my tache! The rest is trash!
“What’s on my lip defines me!”

 

 

Ghettoisation is liberation

War is peace

Freedom is slavery

Ignorance is strength

To which we should now add a fourth slogan:

Ghettoisation is liberation

Yes, I know I must appear to be no more than an ageing has-been, or, more accurately, an ageing never-has-been, raging furiously at the way the world is going. But I hope that’s not quite the whole story. I grew up in Britain in the 60s and 70s, and, despite everything that is still far from perfect, I do know, for instance, that there is far, far greater racial tolerance now (at least in Britain) than there had been some forty or fifty years ago. I also know that modern advances in medicine and medical technology have saved my life: the chances of surviving a triple heart bypass operation are now far greater than they were back in my day. So I would have to be wilfully blind, and unthinkingly ungrateful, to rage against the modern world merely for being modern.

However, certain aspects of the modern world are nonetheless worth raging against. Certain cultural aspects, which, after all, are the major focus of this blog. And amongst the most insidious of these is the increasingly widespread credo that one’s ethnicity, or one’s gender, or one’s sexuality, defines one’s cultural and moral values – defines, indeed, the very person one is.

Certain things enter one’s mind at so formative a stage in that mind’s development, and stay embedded within it so firmly, that it becomes very difficult attempting to look beyond them, or even trying to understand that there may be valid arguments against them. I appreciate that. And one of those things that had entered my mind at a very early stage was the conviction that one’s cultural values, or one’s ethical values, are not determined by race. Indeed, I have long thought deeply objectionable, and, yes, as racist, the idea that one’s race determines the kind of person one is. One’s person is not defined by one’s race: such a credo, determining human value in terms of race, has always seemed to me the very epitome of racism.

So, naturally, I find myself rather bemused, to say the least, when the very people who claim to be anti-racist nowadays proclaim this same racist credo. Suddenly, it seems, everything I have understood about racism seems to be turned on its head. The very definition of “racism” seems to be changed before my very eyes.

Other definitions seem also to be changing before my eyes. Of poetry, for instance. Obviously, defining poetry has never been an easy task: and, after having given the matter much consideration – or, at least, as much consideration as I am capable of – the best definition I could come up with is that if a piece of writing ain’t prose, then it’s poetry, and vice versa. And prose is written in units of sentences, and poetry in units of lines, which may cut across sentences. Or, to put it more crudely, prose goes all the way up to the right hand side of the page, and poetry doesn’t. But that’s pretty uninteresting, and unenlightening: the question is whether something is good poetry, and that, of course, is another matter. And here, we cannot go by definitions, as there are so many different ways that a poem can be good. But, without going into any detailed analysis, it can be maintained, I think, that just as painting involves the manipulation of colours, and music the manipulation of sound, so poetry involves the manipulation of language – of making words communicate more than merely their dictionary definitions. What “more” it can communicate depends upon the intentions and the skills of the poet: it may communicate multiple layers of meaning, or plumb depths of emotion, or evoke distant associations, or elusive states of mind, or capture the most intangible of human feeling and thought; but whatever the poem achieves, its basic tool is language. To analyse how a poem works – should one wish to do that – it is the language we must focus upon.

But this too seems to be changing. Consider this poem, which, I am reliably informed, is a set text for English literature GCSE this year. As far as I can see, with my old-fashioned and no doubt outdated ideas on poetry, this is poetry only because it ain’t prose: the  lines don’t go all the way across the page. It uses a Caribbean dialect, which is fine, but the dialect is used not to any particular expressive end, but merely to assert the poet’s racial identity. And I cannot help wondering what there can be here that merits teaching. The poem conveys nothing more than what may be communicated by a bald summary of its content: “They do not teach us anything that makes me feel comfortable about my racial identity.”

Of course, how history should be taught is a complex issue, and fully deserving of debate and discussion, but to object to the way it is currently taught merely because it does not make one feel comfortable about one’s racial identity does not seem to me a very enlightening contribution to the debate. And such a simplistic statement seems to me a poor theme for a poem. A good poem lays bare the complexity and the intricacy of our human state: a simplistic statement may make a good rallying cry, but its worth as poetry worthy of study remains to my mind dubious.

Well, let’s not labour the point: let’s just say that this is not my idea of what poetry should be – or, at least, what good poetry, poetry worth teaching, should be. But then again, I am shown rap lyrics which I am told is poetry of our times, and I can see no poetic merit there either, so I suppose all this is no more than an indication of how utterly outdated and obsolete my perspective is on such matters.

And my perspective on what constitutes racism is similarly obsolete, I guess. I have changed my mind on a great many things over the years but one point I have been constant on, ever since I have been old enough to think about such matters, is that I was not going to define myself in terms of my ethnicity, as my ethnicity says no more about what kind of person I am than does my shoe-size. Of course, some others may well see me in terms of my ethnicity, but they’d be wrong, and I am not going to confirm them in their wrongness by agreeing with them. And, since I didn’t see myself in terms of my ethnicity, I thought it only good manners not to see others in such terms either. So it’s quite a shock, as I find myself approaching my sixties, to realise that what I had thought was a liberal position to hold in such matters is now actually considered racist – that people are actually clamouring for their ethnicity to be recognised, and to recognise it in others; and that it is racist not to see people thus.

For nowadays, it is quite commonplace to see individual people in terms of their race. No-one bats an eyelid. Of course, I’d expect racists to place a great emphasis on race: that’s because, obviously, they’re racists. But this is now a mark of the anti-racist as well, and, dinosaur that I am, I really cannot reconcile myself to it. In The Guardian, an avowedly liberal paper, there recently appeared an article written by someone who would no doubt claim to be feminist and anti-racist, headlined “How White Women Use Strategic Tears to Silence Women of Colour”. I appreciate that the author was not responsible for the headline, but on this occasion, it’s a fair summary of what the article says. Back in my own benighted times, an article so racist and so misogynistic as this would not have seen light of day.

For yes, it is racist – at least, given my no doubt obsolete understanding of the term. For how else can one describe making generalisations about an entire race? (And it is misogynist as well, for similar reasons.) I raised this point on Twitter, but I was confidently told that one cannot be racist to white people. I did not quite understand the reasons for this quite extraordinary statement , but it’s widely held, and is something, I gather, to do with the “power structures” of society. (It is astonishing how readily the general public laps up the various bits and pieces of bollocksology that emanate from the groves of academia.) And I was recommended to read a book called Why I Am No Longer Talking About Race to White People. I replied, as politely as I could, that I have too much to read as it is, and that I find the title, unless it is intended ironically, offensive. And then I retired from the fray. What else could I do? (The author of this book, incidentally, is so marginalised by the power structures of society that she recently gave a talk at the prestigious Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, and it was sold out.)

Lionel Shriver, who had, not too long ago, earned the disapprobation of right-thinking liberals for her onslaught on the concept of “cultural appropriation” (an idea so utterly daft that one shouldn’t, one would have thought, even need to argue against it), recently penned an article in The Spectator drawing attention to the statement  made by the UK branch of Penguin Random House to the effect that they are aiming for both their staff and their writers to reflect, by 2025, the distribution of ethnicities, genders, disabilities, and sexualities in wider society. To be fair, Penguin Random House do not mention quotas, but it is hard to see how else this seemingly laudable aim can be achieved without them. And if the questionnaire they sent out to their writers is as described by Lionel Shriver (and I have seen no-one disputing this), then it seems fairly likely that this is indeed the path Penguin Random House is going down. Now, the quota system is controversial, to say the least, and Lionel Shriver is entirely justified in penning a polemic against it – although her means of attack is, admittedly, somewhat ham-fisted, introducing as it does that rather tired and tiresome figure of “a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter”. But her point remains valid. If Criterion X is to be replaced by Criterion Y, then, given that X and Y are not correlated one way or the other, there are bound to be at least some that pass Criterion Y who would not have passed Criterion X. At the very least, there is room for debate. But debate didn’t prove possible: all hell broke loose, with Lionel Shriver accused of racism (when really all she was guilty of was ham-fisted satire); and of saying that “people of colour” (as I guess I have to describe myself these days) cannot write, even though, quite clearly, she says no such thing. She later penned a response, but no-one was really listening by then.

But her point remains, I think, a pertinent one. Looking back, I sat my Scottish O-Grade in English (the equivalent of GCSE) back in 1975, and I distinctly remember studying in class poems by Shelley, by Wilfred Owen, by Dylan Thomas. Even if one thinks more highly of “Checking Out Me History” than I do, it cannot be denied that what is now being taught in English classes nowadays as poetry is not of a standard comparable to what had been around some 40 or so years ago. What can be the reason for this?

The only possible answer I can think of is diversity. (That is, to be clear, diversity as a criterion replacing quality, rather than as an addition to it.) And, also, strangely enough, uniformity. For while we may insist on diversity of ethnicity (and all those other things), we must still insist upon uniformity of outlook. After all, there is no shortage of genuinely fine poets who are black, or South Asian, or East Asian, or whatever, writing poems that display richness of language, and depth of thought. But it’s far easier, and far more convenient, to teach a simple message such as “What is taught does not validate my racial identity, and it’s not fair!” All you do is repeat this simple message, ignore the irony that a poem communicating this very message is now a set text in schools, and, lo and behold, you don’t really need to teach about poetry at all! All that difficult stuff about the use of language, the subtleties of the rhythms, the sonorities, the imagery – the sort of stuff that I was introduced to in the works of Shelley, of Wilfred Owen, of Dylan Thomas, when I was fifteen – can now be safely ignored. And it’s all right, because we have diversity, and that, apparently, is an end in itself.

And meanwhile, it continues. Examples pile upon each other, and it becomes exhausting merely trying to keep up. We keep quoting to ourselves the inspirational line of the late Jo Cox, who was so tragically murdered last year by a far-right racist: “We have more in common than that which divides us.” But even as we repeat this to ourselves, in practice, it is all that divides us that we most insist upon. Human beings are barely regarded as individuals any more: they are white, or black, or brown, or whatever. At the drop of a hat, it’s the ethnicity or gender or sexuality that comes inevitably to the fore, before all else. A published poet feels affronted by an Uber driver saying that he would like to be published, and instantly, she publicly announces that “old white men are exhausting”. Instantly, this taxi driver, who was doing no more than making polite conversation, is not an individual, but someone to be characterised by race and gender (and age), and put down on that score. The tweet has since been removed after heavy criticism, but there has been no apology or retraction.

(I will not link to her poetry by the way, but some are available in Instagram, should anyone wish to see them. I have. As I say, I simply do not understand the criteria of poetic merit any more, so there’s little point my commenting.)

So here I am, wondering why I even bother writing this when there’s so much I clearly don’t understand. Nor, frankly, wish to understand. Foolishly, I really had believed, and believe still, that we have more in common than that which divides us, and still feel very strongly that we have a very long way to go towards racial equality, and, further, that such an end is worth fighting for. But I had imagined that the struggle against racism was to break through the differences, and find that common ground. But that’s all old hat now. The message from all sides seems to me clear: see everyone, including one’s own self, in terms of ethnicity; respect all that divides us; stay in your lane.

Well, I want out. Obsolete  I may be, but I want no part in any of this. Let others fart around trying to find validation in poetry for their racial identity, and judge literary works on such terms: I’ll sit in my ivory tower for as long as I can, and glory in the richness of language and the subtlety of imagery and the profundity of feeling that I found in the English class in the comprehensive school I attended. Especially when the October wind punishes my hair…

Yes, our English teacher taught us this poem by Dylan Thomas for our O-Grade examination. This, of course, was back when people actually believed that poetry, far from being something to validate one’s group identity, existed to enrich our lives.

Especially when the October wind
With frosty fingers punishes my hair,
Caught by the crabbing sun I walk on fire
And cast a shadow crab upon the land,
By the sea’s side, hearing the noise of birds,
Hearing the raven cough in winter sticks,
My busy heart who shudders as she talks
Sheds the syllabic blood and drains her words.

Shut, too, in a tower of words, I mark
On the horizon walking like the trees
The wordy shapes of women, and the rows
Of the star-gestured children in the park.
Some let me make you of the vowelled beeches,
Some of the oaken voices, from the roots
Of many a thorny shire tell you notes,
Some let me make you of the water’s speeches.

Behind a pot of ferns the wagging clock
Tells me the hour’s word, the neural meaning
Flies on the shafted disk, declaims the morning
And tells the windy weather in the cock.
Some let me make you of the meadow’s signs;
The signal grass that tells me all I know
Breaks with the wormy winter through the eye.
Some let me tell you of the raven’s sins.

Especially when the October wind
(Some let me make you of autumnal spells,
The spider-tongued, and the loud hill of Wales)
With fists of turnips punishes the land,
Some let me make you of the heartless words.
The heart is drained that, spelling in the scurry
Of chemic blood, warned of the coming fury.
By the sea’s side hear the dark-vowelled birds

Isn’t that just gorgeous?

“The Stone Guest” by Alexander Pushkin

[All excerpts below taken from the translation by Nancy K. Anderson, published by Yale University Press, 2000.]

Pushkin seemed to have had Mozart on his mind around 1830, when he wrote those four miniature plays, usually known in English as the “Little Tragedies”. In one of these plays, Mozart and Salieri – a dramatic treatment of the myth that Salieri had poisoned Mozart, and written long before Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus –  Mozart himself is one of the protagonists. Another deals with a myth that, by then, was very much associated with Mozart – the myth of Don Juan. But, as with everyone else who had tackled this myth (including its originator, Tirso de Molina), Pushkin had his own individual view of the myth. And, partly because the form of Pushkin’s work – a miniature play in which, given its brevity, much is necessarily left unsaid – it is Pushkin’s view that I find the most enigmatic and elusive of those I have so far encountered.

Tirso de Molina had not made too much of the master-servant relationship. Molière, and, following him, Mozart and da Ponte, had, bringing this relationship to the front of the stage. Pushkin also brings the master and the servant (the servant here called Leporello, as in Mozart’s opera) to the forefront: the drama begins with the two of them entering Madrid, even though Don Juan has previously been banished from the city. The conversation between the two is partly expository – telling us what we need to know for the drama to make sense; but it is not entirely expository. Just minutes into the play, for instance, we get this:

DON JUAN (pensively): …    Poor Inez!
She’s gone now! How I loved her!

LEPORELLO: Inez! The black-eyed one … Now I remember,
For three months you were paying court
To her; it was all the devil could do to help.

DON JUAN: July it was … at night. I found strange pleasure
In gazing at her sorrowful eyes
And death-pale lips. It’s strange,
You apparently didn’t think she was
A beauty. And in fact, there wasn’t
Much beautiful about her. Her eyes,
Just her eyes. And her glance … I’ve never seen
Another glance like that. And her voice
Was quiet, feeble – like a sick woman’s –
Her husband was a worthless wretch, and stern –
I found that out too late – Poor Inez!…

With all its various ellipses and aposiopeses, the effect of this passage is sketchy – an adumbration rather than a depiction. Inez was no beauty in any conventional sense, and her “sorrowful eyes and death-pale lips”, and her voice that was “quiet, feeble”, suggest something sickly, other-worldly, and haunted by death. She is not, in short, the type of woman we would expect Don Juan to be attracted to; and, indeed, Don Juan himself is not sure why he had been attracted to her. In Mozart’s opera, Don Juan (or Don Giovanni) would seduce (or rape, if needs be) all kinds of women, simply to add them to his list, but what we see here is something new, something very alien to the incarnations of Don Juan as imagined by either de Molina, or by Molière, or by Mozart: we see here a Don Juan capable of genuine tenderness and affection. True, the other Don Juans could express tenderness and affection for the woman they are wooing at the time, but never for a past conquest; and it is left to us to determine how sincere their protestations of tenderness and affections are, and, indeed, whether such feelings can be said to exist at all when they are, at best, merely transient. But Pushkin leaves us in no doubt: this Don Juan is indeed capable of feeling these emotions, even for a woman who is now, presumably, dead.

And neither was Don Juan attracted to Inez because of her beauty. Leporello did not think her beautiful, and Don Juan agrees. Whatever attracted him, it was not her physical charms. And what he chooses to remember about her are those death-haunted qualities – her “sorrowful eyes and death-pale lips”. All of this suggests a rich inner world that previous Don Juans did not have. But then, almost immediately, Pushkin pulls us up short: the last two lines of the passage quoted suggest – only suggest, as nothing is spelt out – that Inez was murdered by her husband for her affair with Don Juan. If this was indeed the case, Don Juan had played a significant part in her tragedy, and, especially given how he still feels about her, he should feel guilt, and remorse. And yet, he doesn’t. Immediately after this rather affecting minor key passage, without so much as pausing for breath, Pushkin turns the tonality to a major key, and the rhythm becomes jaunty, as Don Juan and Leporello move on to talk about further conquests. Yes, Pushkin had Mozart on the mind, right enough.

This passage about Inez cannot be described as “expository”, as Inez is not mentioned again in the play. The entire section could have been taken out without affecting our understanding of what happens. But that minor key tonality it imparts, if only for a few bars, colours everything that comes afterwards. And it leaves us with a strange impression of Don Juan: he is a man clearly capable of introspection and tenderness and depth of feeling, who can be drawn to qualities other than mere external charm, and yet who bears no responsibility for the past, no guilt for his actions. He had, in the past, before the curtain raises on this play, killed the Commander, for reasons and in circumstances both left unspecified. But, once again, there is not the slightest hint in him of remorse: rather than feel sorry for the man he had killed, it is his widow, Doña Ana, who now interests him. The past is buried, and not allowed to interfere with the joys of the present.

In the second of the four scenes that make up this play, we are introduced to, in effect, a female equivalent of Don Juan, the actress Laura, who, like her male counterpart, demands complete freedom to pursue her desires. If Don Juan feels no responsibility for the past, Laura, only eighteen, and, hence, without much of a past to speak of, feels none for the future. When reminded that some day she too will be old, her reaction is:

…  Then? Why should
I think of that? What talk is this?

But even in those eighteen years, she had been Don Juan’s lover, and, in this scene, Don Juan comes back to visit her once again. This is yet another departure from previous incarnations of Don Juans: previous Don Juans did not care for their past lovers, their past conquests – they were always moving onwards to new experiences. But Pushkin’s Don Juan is different: he may not take responsibility for the past, and may refuse to feel any guilt that may interfere with his enjoyment of the present, but that past, nonetheless, is never dead for him.

In Laura’s apartment, Don Juan is challenged to a duel by a Don Carlos, whose brother Don Juan had previously killed in duel. (Whether or not Don Carlos’ dead brother is the Commander, we are never told.) Don Juan does not want to fight in Laura’s room, but he is given no choice. Of course, he kills Don Carlos. As in Molière’s play, Pushkin had placed the killing of the Commander before the play opens, but while Molière had done this to make Don Juan a more likeable character, Pushkin has no such intention: the killing of Don Carlos takes place in full view on stage, and, while it can certainly be argued that Don Juan was given no choice in the matter, we cannot but note the utter lack of remorse, or even of regret, either on his part, or on Laura’s. It has happened, it is now in the past, and responsibility for past actions, or guilt for past crimes, must not be allowed to interfere with the demands of the present.

And yet the past cannot be forgotten. There, it seems to me, is the paradox at the heart of this strange and elusive work. To enjoy the present, to seize the moment, the past must be forgotten; and yet, the past cannot be forgotten: the death-like pallor of Inez continues to haunt.

This paradox forces itself into the forefront of the action in the final scene. Here, Don Juan, having declared his love for Doña Ana under the assumed name of Don Diego, has been invited into her chamber. And, on the very brink of attaining his desire, he does the very thing that is most likely to thwart it: he admits that Don Diego is but an assumed name, and that he is really Don Juan, the killer of her husband. It is a startling moment, and not something I can claim fully to understand. It seems an inexplicable thing to do, and certainly not something that the Don Juans of de Molina,  Molière, or Mozart would have done. But Pushkin’s Don Juan is different: however he may try  to bury the past, to expunge it from his mind so he does not have to bear its burden, it refuses to remain hidden: it must out. And, in this startling final scene, it erupts unexpectedly into the open.

And at this point, the statue of the Commander comes to drag Don Juan into Hell. It is impossible not to see the stone statue at this point in symbolic terms. What does he represent? For surely, he must represent something: he is not just an optional add-on, present merely because the story demands it. The title of Pushkin’s play is not, after all, Don Juan, or Don Giovanni, or The Trickster of Seville: it is The Stone Guest. It is the statue, the title reminds us, and not Don Juan, who is at the centre of things, and it is up to us to understand the significance of this statue.

The obvious response is that he is the past that Don Juan had tried to deny – the responsibility he had shirked, the guilt he had buried, but which refuses to remain buried. Seen in this respect, we can find significance in the fact that he is of stone, the very antithesis of the flesh and blood that lives for the moment; we may find significance also in the fact that it is Don Juan who had invited him; or in the fact that the statue of the Commander is considerably larger than the Commander had been when he had lived.

All of this makes for a coherent reading, no doubt, but it strikes me as unsatisfactory, as it reduces the poetic richness of the work to mere allegory, and symbols rich with meaning into impoverished ciphers. In these cases, it seems to me best to not interpret at all, but, rather, instead of trying to winkle out what these symbols and the poetic images may mean, to take them at face value, and allow them to resonate in one’s mind.

I can’t say this play has settled yet in my mind. But it does continue to resonate, and I do sense there is more substance here than can be conveyed by any interpretation I may have to offer. Pushkin seemed to see this myth in terms of the past, and of the burden of guilt for that past that we try to keep submerged, but which we cannot keep from irrupting into the present.

At least, that’s the way I see it right now: I’m sure that the longer I ponder on it, the more meanings it will continue to yield. It is, as I said, the most enigmatic and elusive of all the Don Juans I have encountered so far.

A sentimental post to start the year

That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth.

There comes a time in middle age when the Ghosts of one’s Christmases Past begin to outnumber even the most optimistic of estimates of the Ghosts of Christmases Yet to Come. Since I have long passed that tipping point, and the weight of Christmases Past lies so heavily in the balance, I trust I may be excused for focusing on the former rather than on the latter. And as I do so, it is hard not to feel, as Wordsworth did, that there has indeed passed away a glory from the world. Now, before I am accused of sentimentality – as is usually the case when I try to speak of such matters – let me expand a little.

Something has changed – something is very different now from what it had been in our childhood years, and the difference, as any smug commentator will tell you, is in what has changed in ourselves rather than in the outside world. Wordsworth – never the sentimentalist despite ignorant claims to the contrary – recognized this. The innocent brightness of a new-born day, he knew, is lovely yet. There’s no point asking where is fled that visionary gleam: it’s still there – we just can’t perceive it any more, and that’s all. It’s the way things are: no point lamenting the inevitable. But Wordsworth himself, though determined to find strength in what remains, could not help lamenting. We cannot, after all, stop feeling things merely because “there’s no point to it”.

One of the most touching of these laments is the poem “The Oxen” by Thomas Hardy, written in the darkest days of 1915, when he was an old man of seventy-five years, and when Europe, as if justifying the prophetic pessimism he had expressed in his novels years earlier, was in the process of tearing itself apart. In this wonderfully touching poem, Hardy looks back on childhood innocence and naivety; but the poem is not really about either: it is about one’s longing for a time when such innocence and naivety had been possible. There may not be any point to such longing, but we feel a great many things that have no point to them. That such longing is futile does not make it ridiculous, but, rather, imbues it with a profound sadness.

I find a similar lament in a piece that is often regarded merely as candy-coated decorative fluff – in the score of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. It is, of course, a perennial Christmas favourite, to be wheeled out every year along with the crackers, the Christmas tree, the mince pies, and the Dickens; and few, I think, will deny its charm. But what frequently is denied is its profundity. Tchaikovsky himself, we are told, considered the subject matter to be too light, and although, being a consummate professional, he gave it his finest craftsmanship, what he withheld was his artistry. It is merely decorative, merely a bit of fluff.

I have never been able to reconcile myself to this view, as I find the music genuinely and very deeply moving. I can’t deny that it is full of music that is decorative; neither can I deny that its subject – a Christmas Party, a child’s subsequent entry into a world of fairy tales, and her journey to the Kingdom of Sweets – is very slight, even, perhaps, trivial. But I was very interested to read recently this excellent piece by music critic Gavin Plumley, in which he argues that The Nutcracker is a piece that deserves to be taken seriously. Whatever Tchaikovsky’s initial feelings about the nature of his commission, he argues, the composition of the piece was taken very seriously indeed, and not merely in terms of craftsmanship.

Although it’s always dangerous relating a work of art to the artist’s biography, it was good to have confirmation of what seems to me obvious from the music – that, far from being decorative fluff, it is a serious and deeply felt work, and a response to an emotionally shattering event (the death of Tchaikovsky’s sister). As Plumley puts it, “The Nutcracker undoubtedly poses much larger questions than is often suggested”. But what exactly those “larger questions” are is not obvious, and different listeners will have different views on this.

To me, these larger questions are not about mortality: Tchaikovsky kept that for his 6th symphony, a work that, for me, in many ways complements The Nutcracker. Neither is The Nutcracker, as is often suggested, about Clara’s progress from childhood to womanhood: true, the nutcracker become a handsome prince, but I can detect no eroticism in the music, nor any indication of Clara’s sexual awakening. Indeed, she and the Nutcracker Prince go to the Kingdom of Sweets, which hardly suggests leaving childhood behind. These are not what I see in this piece, although what I do see seems difficult to articulate.

One thing that never ceases to strike me about the score (the full score, that is, and not the series of bleeding chunks that form the suite) is a sense of tenderness, a sense of yearning, and a profound melancholy that seems quite at odds with its alleged light-hearted fluffiness. Is there anything in all music that is more tender or yearning than that beautiful passage at the start of the forest scene towards the end of Act One? Or what about the passionate longing in the Act Two pas de deux? (“How is it possible to make so much just out of a simple descending scale?” Britten had wondered.) The underlying seriousness of passages such as this bleeds, as it were, into the rest of the score, infusing even the most joyous of numbers, the most seemingly uncomplicated of childlike dances, with a sense of something more deeply felt – something more deeply interfused, as Wordsworth might have said.

The Nutcracker depicts childhood innocence and naivety, but, as with Hardy’s poem, these are not, for me at least, its central themes: at the centre of this piece there is, I think, our adult longing for childhood innocence and naivety. And this longing, Tchaikovsky knew as well as did Wordsworth or Hardy, is futile: no matter how fervently we may long, we can never return to our childhood state. Indeed, this state of blissful innocence may never really have existed in the first place. But that does not prevent us from longing for it. It is this sense of futility of such longing that infuses this otherwise joyous music with so profound an underlying sense of sadness: I find it almost heartbreaking in its poignancy. Longing for something that can never be attained is a familiar Romantic trope: in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, for instance, this longing was for erotic fulfilment; here, it is for a childhood that is for ever gone.

That, at least, is how it seems to me. Underlying the joyous festivities of The Nutcracker (for it is indeed joyous), I seem to hear a lament similar to what I find in so much of Wordworth’s poetry, or in Hardy’s “The Oxen”.

Tchaikovsky’s next great masterpiece, his last, was his 6th symphony – an unblinking stare into the face of death itself, and among the most shattering of any works of art, in any medium. If The Nutcracker is Tchaikovsky’s Song of Innocence (albeit innocence seen from the perspective of experience), his 6th symphony is his Song of Experience. They are two very different works of, for me, comparable artistic stature. While one looks back at the Christmases Past, evoking its joys but imbuing these same joys with the profound sadness for that which is lost, the other looks heroically and unflinchingly at what is Yet to Come. As another poet put it, we look before and after, and pine for what is not.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Translating poetry

My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.

For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;

The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;

The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

 

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

 

Endure what life God gives and ask no longer span;
Cease to remember the delights of youth, travel-wearied aged man;
Delight becomes death-longing if all longing else be vain.

Even from that delight memory treasures so,
Death, despair, division of families, all entanglements of mankind grow,
As that old wandering beggar and these God-hated children know.

In the long echoing street the laughing dancers throng,
The bride is carried to the bridegroom’s chamber through torchlight and tumultuous song;
I celebrate the silent kiss that ends short life or long.

Never to have lived is best, ancient writers say;
Never to have drawn the breath of life, never to have looked into the eye of day;
The second best’s a gay goodnight and quickly turn away.

 

The passages quoted above have one thing in common: they are all poetry in translation. The first, is, of course, from the Song of Solomon in the King James Bible, and, though formally set out in prose, is, effectively, poetry: few, I imagine, will deny its poetic qualities. For the second excerpt, I have chosen two of the most famous stanzas of all English poetry – except, of course, it’s Persian poetry: the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, translated by Edward Fitzgerald. My third choice, a magnificent poem in any language, is Yeats’ rendition of a chorus from Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. I think it fair to say that English literature – by which I mean literature in the English language, rather than literature originating from England – would have been immeasurably poorer without any of the above.

In my last post here on translations, I focussed on certain aspects of poetry that resist translation, and may have given the impression that translation of poetry is not possible, and should not even be attempted. If that is indeed the impression I have given, it was entirely inadvertent on my part, and I apologise. The quote attributed to Robert Frost – that poetry is “what gets lost in translation” – is, Tom from the Amateur Reader blog tells me, a misquote; but, misquote or not, it does, I think, articulate part of the truth: there certainly are aspects of poetry that, for various reasons, resist translation. This is, possibly, particularly true of lyric poetry, where, to a great extent, much of the meaning is rooted in the actual sounds of the words, i.e. the very thing that is specific to a particular language. But while this misquote of Frost’s may articulate part of the truth, it is very far from articulating the whole truth; for it is demonstrable that poetry in translation can be of a very high quality, and can, as the above excerpts illustrate, become great poetry in its own right.

In short, the statement attributed to Robert Frost should not deter us from reading poetry in translation. If one wishes to have a grasp of 19th century French literature, say, one needs as much acquaintance with Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud as one does with Balzac, Stendhal, and Flaubert; Pushkin’s verse is every bit as important as Tolstoy’s novels, and Rilke every bit as important as Mann. To miss out on such great pillars of Western literature as Homer, the Greek tragedians, Virgil, Horace, Dante, Goethe, etc. is to leave massive holes (assuming holes can have mass, which, I realise even as I am writing, they cannot) in one’s grasp of what literature is; and the innumerable lesser pillars are also worth pursuing, and getting to know.

Having dabbled a bit at translating poetry myself, I have come across a few conclusions about the nature of the English language, and what it can, and cannot, convey. For the purpose of translating poetry is, after all, to create poetry in the target language: if a translation of a poem into English does not read like a poem in English, then no-one will read it, and the translator will have fallen at the first hurdle. But I do sometimes wonder whether my conclusions are correct. For instance, I had decided quite early that English cannot take too much alliteration – that if one overdoes the alliteration, one simply sounds contrived, and a bit silly. Shakespeare himself, after all, had taken the piss out of excessive alliteration in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Whereat, with blade, with bloody blameful blade,
He bravely broached his boiling bloody breast.

But if it is indeed true that the English language cannot take too much alliteration, it is hard to explain why lines such as the following, from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Wreck of the “Deutschland”, should be so powerful and affecting, and so self-evidently great poetry:

I whirled out wings that spell
And fled with a fling of the heart to the heart of the Host.
My heart, but you were dovewinged, I can tell,
Carrier-witted, I am bold to boast,
To flash from the flame to the flame then, tower from the grace to the grace.

 

Of course, Shakespeare’s lines are, intentionally, bad poetry, whereas Hopkins’ lines clearly aren’t, but since insistent alliteration is common to both, it cannot be that alliteration in itself determines the quality of the verse. There’s something else there – but damned if I can see what it is. Perhaps what makes poetry great is a mystery that ultimately defies analysis, but there is no reason why a good translator should not be capable of creating a mystery in the target language that is equivalent to the mystery created by the poet in the original. At the very least, Edward Fitzgerald, William Butler Yeats, and the anonymous translators of the King James Bible, demonstrate that it is, at least, possible.

“What is poetry?” revisited

I can’t really remember who it was who said “If I think today what I thought yesterday, I haven’t been thinking in the meantime”. Maybe no-one said it. Maybe it’s one of those made-up quotes attributed to some famous name, like Einstein say, who, if the internet is to be believed, spent so much time making up smartarse lines that it’s a wonder he had any time left over to think about relativity and the like. But whether it’s a real quote or not, there’s more than an element of truth in it: I’m sure I’m not the only blogger who looks over past posts and thinks “No – that really won’t do will it?”

It was this post in particular that caught my eye lately, and stirred my disapproval of what I used once to think. To save you clicking on it, I had tried to answer the question “What is poetry?” and arrived at the conclusion that whereas prose is writing in units of sentences, poetry is writing in units of lines that may cut across sentences. And there I left it. I suppose that is right as far as it goes, but it goes nowhere near far enough. For it does not address the question of why we may think of certain passages of prose – in units of sentences, as specified –as nonetheless poetic.

And neither does it address
Why this writing, written
In units of lines
Will nonetheless fail, quite
Rightly, to convince most readers
That it is indeed
Poetry.

No, there’s something more to it than this. I’m not entirely sure what, but let us try, in the spirit of enquiry, to see if we can at least come close to an answer.

The first question that occurs to me is: Why write in units of lines anyway when writing in units if sentences makes so much more sense? The answer to that is, I suppose, that by writing in units of lines, the rhythm of each individual line becomes more prominent, and the words placed at the start and at the end of each line are given greater weight. And if we further ask why the rhythm of individual lines should matter, or why we should wish to give greater weight to certain words, the answer surely is not merely expressivity, but, more fully, an expressivity that prose, written in units of sentences, cannot usually give us.

Based on this, I’ll try, very tentatively, a definition of poetry that has nothing to do with such mundane matters as the units in which it is written:

Poetry is writing in which language is manipulated in such a way as it make it express things that, were it not for this manipulation, it would not be able to express.

By this definition, the third chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses is pure poetry; and my broken-up piece of prose above (which I nonetheless insist is far more poetic than much that passes for poetry on the net these days) isn’t.

But what kind of “manipulation”? A few come to mind:

– A focus on rhythms and sonorities, on the patterns made by the sounds of the words as well as the on what the words mean
– Connotative as well as denotative meanings of words
– The manipulation of syntax to give greater emphasis to certain words or phrases
– Imagery – i.e. attaching to certain things certain ideas, or certain concepts

o allowing a single thing to become attached to various different ideas or concepts, so that their common attachment to this single thing brings them together

o juxtaposing different things with different ideas or concepts attached to them, so that these ideas and concepts may then flow into each other

And so on. There are many, many more modes of manipulation – as many as there are poets to imagine them. And the purpose of all this manipulation is to force language to yield meanings that it would not have been able to yield were it restricted merely to dictionary definitions of words. Indeed, in poetry, the dictionary definitions are sometimes the least important elements. It is not to decry analysis to say that a poem can bypass analysis, or even thought about the literal meanings, to make its effect on the reader.

It may be objected that my new definition of poetry could be applied to prose as well as to poetry. To which I’d reply: “Yes, precisely.”