Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Sad similitude

In the early poems of Lawrence Durrell we find lines with a rhythmic and syntactic similarity which almost amounts to a tic:

In all the sad seduction of your ways

and

When all the slow destruction of the mind

A short Teutonic word followed by a long Latinate word is a well-used tactic:  “sad seduction,” “slow destruction.”

There is nothing particularly good about these lines; in fact, they both suffer the minor flaw of having the word ‘of’ bear an albeit secondary iambic stress. This is a bit of awkward panel-beating in the line, denting the language a bit out of shape.

But behind these lines lurks the ghost of a line of a far greater craftsman: Alexander Pope.

In sad similitude of griefs to mine.

Here not only is ‘of’ not required to bear an unnatural stress, but the fine balance of syllabic quantities across the line is expertly done. If we mark the caesura:

In sad similitude 𝄁 of griefs to mine

We can see that in the first half of the line thee are five short quantities and only one long: the -ude of ‘similitude.’ In the second half of the line there are three long quantities and onyl one short. If you crudely count a long quantity as twice a short, then each half line carries the exact same weight.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Who has the time?

Eliot at his desk at Faber & Faber
T.S. Eliot, from the age of 29 until he was 37, worked at Lloyd’s bank. This was from 1917 until 1925. His hours would have been 9:15 am to 5:30 pm Monday to Friday, plus one Saturday a month. There were two weeks of vacation a year. During this period, which starts around the publication of his first book Prufrock and Other Observations, he published the collection Poems 1920, influential essays such as ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, and in the year 1922 he published The Wasteland as well as founding the quarterly The Criterion which he edited for the next 17 years.

Recall Cyril Connolly’s observation that “we cannot think if we have no time to read.” Eliot in a letter of 29 April 1927 (in Vol 3 1926-1927) to editor of The Evening Standard writes how contributors to The Criterion are “supporting themselves and their families in the Civil Service, or in museums, or in universities, or in banks and commercial houses, and are thus able to think, and read, and write independently of a livelihood.” As Stephen Collini observes in his recent book Common Writing, “Several kinds of social and economic change thereafter combined to bring about a much sharper contrast between a university post and these other occupations; in the early twenty-first century we hardly think of a job in a bank or a commercial house, or even perhaps in the civil service, as allowing much leisure to ‘think, and read, and write’ about literary and intellectual matters.” Perhaps the absence of television or the internet might also partly explain how normal employment could leave time for literary pursuits, that and — amongst the middle classes — the universal use of servants, live in domestic staff and ‘dailies’ to tend to the business of running a household. The lighting of fires, the cleaning of the house, the laundry, the shopping, the preparation of meals: all this was done by domestic staff.

In her book The Mrs Woolf and the Servants: The Hidden Heart of Domestic Service, Alison Light states that “without all the domestic care and hard work which servants provided there would have been no art, no writing, no ‘Bloomsbury.’” Rosemary Hill, in her LRB Review of that book starkly describes Virginia Woolf’s last months:  “With the winter her state of mind deteriorated and as her final illness began she found comfort in cleaning, telling her doctor that she had ‘taken to scrubbing floors when she couldn’t write’. Leonard hoped the mechanical tasks might be therapeutic and encouraged her to help Louie Everest, their daily, who was somewhat surprised: ‘I had never known her want to do any housework with me before.’ Woolf, who had once found it humiliating to do her own shopping, spent the last morning of her life dusting with Louie, before she put the duster down and went to drown herself.”

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Garden Time

W.S.Merwin's Garden Time reads as perhaps a notebook of sketches for poems, which makes me think of Adorno's notions of 'late style', or perhaps as a single large poem, much in the way that several of Geoffrey Hill's recent books read: a large number of small lyrics that amass into a unified grandeur.

There is a strong Proustian current running through the meditative reflections.

Sometimes in the dark I find myself
in a place that I seem to have known
in another time ... 

These lines strongly echo the opening of À la recherche du temps perdu, but in Merwin's poem the nostalgia for the things he remembers is transfigured by the thought not only of whether they are still in the same place, but also the question

would they know me and have they been
waiting for me all this time

The book is full of single clear observations:

The rain stopped
you never hear it stop

and thoughts of stopping, ending, visiting a place for the last time permeate the texture of the poems.

as I stand eating the black cherries
from the loaded branches above me
saying to myself Remember this

which brings it's heartbreaking echoes of Dido's lament from Purcell:

When I am laid, am laid in earth, May my wrongs create
No trouble, no trouble in thy breast;
Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate.
Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.

Memories surface and shift through the poems with the slight incoherence of dream. A poem which captures the memory of seeing dragonflies is infused with a childlike clarity of perception, but also brings this into a more adult observation of how the world we inhabit is changing irrevocably, using the dragonfly as an emblem:

now there are grown-ups hurrying
who never saw one
and do not know what they
are not seeing

What host of things are we not seeing?

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The catch-cries of the clown

The clever man who cries
The catch-cries of the clown,
The beating down of the wise
And great Art beaten down.

W. B. Yeats (aged 54)