Monday, 25 August 2008

Pathetic British film

I go to the pictures quite seldom and when I do am usually disappointed. Why I am is illustrated by one of the last films I saw (actually on DVD at home), Atonement. Two young people who have just consummated their love are separated when he is wrongly arrested, convicted of rape (of another girl) and imprisoned. He is released into the army, goes to France with the British Expeditionary Force, is separated from the force but finds them again at Dunkirk waiting to be ferried home and dies of septicaemia before he can board. She, now a nurse, dies when a bomb hits a water main and drowns the occupants of the tube station where she is sheltering. But what we’re shown is not the two deaths but the couple’s happy reunion in London, and then we’re told by the girl who had falsely accused him, now a writer advanced in years and torn by guilt, that she’d made the happy scenes up to repay them. So that’s supposed to be moving, or what?

I'm just not interested. A novelist falsifies a history out of guilt: who cares? A couple realise they’re in love: they’re alone in the library; they make love. What does seeing a bit of tame close-up add to that information? Constantly in this film (and in many others) I get the sense that the plot says ‘they realise they’re in love’, ‘they make love’, ‘he and a couple of fellow soldiers wander lost in France’, ‘he lies sick in a basement in Dunkirk’ etc., and the director just fills out those brief labels, illustrating them, as it were, with an appropriate scene, from which we get little more than the label would have communicated yet have to sit through every tedious minute of it, knowing exactly what it’s doing. Spicy bits are thrown in to liven up the experience: they come across the odd atrocity, the woman (now a nurse) unwraps the bandage of a wounded soldier and discovers the horror of the wound of which he is unaware. The little scenes like that may hold the attention briefly, then we move on the next one, and it doesn’t add up to anything.

There’s also one big scene on which most of the budget must have been blown: the Dunkirk beach with the army, at a loose end and apparently somewhat out of control, waiting for the boats. It’s a fine spectacle, but what’s it there for except to be that?

But then the only recent McEwan book I read also had this painting-by-numbers quality (Saturday--he’d evidently been on work experience in a brain surgery theatre so as to be able to include descriptions which seem similarly unmotivated or unintegrated).

It was relief the next night to watch a decent French police thriller, 36, in which almost no scene felt as if it was there just to pad out a phrase in the plot.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Carlyle’s characters

Carlyle believed that the historian should be an artist. According to Hadva Ben-Israel (English historians on the French Revolution, Cambridge University Press, 1968 -- my quotes here are from him), unlike the scholar who was frightened by the vastness of the canvass and retreats into detail, Carlyle was excited by the scope of the topic and conveyed its immensity in his writing. At the same time, unlike conventional accounts of the time that were concerned to tell the reader what to think about the French Revolution, Carlyle presents ‘a pure narrative, a story told by the traditional omniscient observer’ -- and urges us to think about what it all means, not assume we know. Where the general British reaction was horror at the carnage, Carlyle points out that, for instance, during the Terror bread was affordable to ordinary people as it not been ever before in human memory and would not be afterwards.

He ‘presents both situations and questions of judgment in the confused, uncertain way in which they appear to the people concerned,’ and one of the most immediately striking features of his history is that he writes for the most part in the present tense as if he were indeed an observer at the time (though he sometimes reveals when he writes of what will happen that he in fact knows how things subsequently turned out). Most of all, the narrator's role makes me think of the Chorus of a Greek play, mostly narrating but often also addressing us directly as if we were contemporaries, and addressing the characters with rhetorical questions and exclamations.

Carlyle was influenced by recent German historians (and corresponded with Goethe) but also by Romantic literature: Scott and Byron. Like them he was interested in the use of the ‘dramatic genius’ outside theatre and sought to write a story as vivid and dramatic as a Scott novel, but true: he cared only about what ‘really happened’, the ‘human facts’.

Consequently, I feel having read the book not only that it’s been a gripping story but that for the first time I know about the French Revolution, never having read anything except summaries before.

If I keep to my plan, in future postings I'll say more about what Carlyle makes of the Revolution (and specifically of the Terror); and will also reproduce some passages to give a flavour of his treatment of key events and developments. For now, though, something about his people. I've said that reading The French Revolution is not easy. One of the main reasons is its complexity: the cast of characters, for instance, is huge, and I found myself frequently using the index to look up where a particular name had cropped up before. With the main characters, however, we have no problem because Carlyle has made them distinct and memorable in the manner of Scott. Here are two of them, Mirabeau and Robespierre. (Text taken from Gutenberg online, page numbers refer to the edition I'm using, Modern Library (New York), 2002).

Count Gabriel Honoré Mirabeau:

Towards such work, in such manner, marches he, this singular Riquetti Mirabeau. In fiery rough figure, with black Samson-locks under the slouch-hat, he steps along there. A fiery fuliginous mass, which could not be choked and smothered, but would fill all France with smoke. And now it has got air; it will burn its whole substance, its whole smoke-atmosphere too, and fill all France with flame. Strange lot! Forty years of that smouldering, with foul fire-damp and vapour enough, then victory over that;—and like a burning mountain he blazes heaven-high; and, for twenty-three resplendent months, pours out, in flame and molten fire-torrents, all that is in him, the Pharos and Wonder-sign of an amazed Europe;—and then lies hollow, cold forever! Pass on, thou questionable Gabriel Honore, the greatest of them all: in the whole National Deputies, in the whole Nation, there is none like and none second to thee. (Chapter 1.4 IV p.119)

The National Assembly, in one of its stormiest moods, is debating a Law against Emigration; Mirabeau declaring aloud, "I swear beforehand that I will not obey it." Mirabeau is often at the Tribune this day; with endless impediments from without; with the old unabated energy from within. What can murmurs and clamours, from Left or from Right, do to this man; like Teneriffe or Atlas unremoved? With clear thought; with strong bass-voice, though at first low, uncertain, he claims audience, sways the storm of men: anon the sound of him waxes, softens; he rises into far-sounding melody of strength, triumphant, which subdues all hearts; his rude-seamed face, desolate fire-scathed, becomes fire-lit, and radiates: once again men feel, in these beggarly ages, what is the potency and omnipotency of man's word on the souls of men. "I will triumph or be torn in fragments," he was once heard to say. "Silence," he cries now, in strong word of command, in imperial consciousness of strength, "Silence, the thirty voices, Silence aux trente voix!"—and Robespierre and the Thirty Voices die into mutterings; and the Law is once more as Mirabeau would have it. (Chapter 2.3 VI p.355)

But whoever will, with sympathy, which is the first essential towards insight, look at this questionable Mirabeau, may find that there lay verily in him, as the basis of all, a Sincerity, a great free Earnestness; nay call it Honesty, for the man did before all things see, with that clear flashing vision, into what was, into what existed as fact; and did, with his wild heart, follow that and no other. Whereby on what ways soever he travels and struggles, often enough falling, he is still a brother man. Hate him not; thou canst not hate him! Shining through such soil and tarnish, and now victorious effulgent, and oftenest struggling eclipsed, the light of genius itself is in this man; which was never yet base and hateful: but at worst was lamentable, loveable with pity. They say that he was ambitious, that he wanted to be Minister. It is most true; and was he not simply the one man in France who could have done any good as Minister? Not vanity alone, not pride alone; far from that! Wild burstings of affection were in this great heart; of fierce lightning, and soft dew of pity. So sunk, bemired in wretchedest defacements, it may be said of him, like the Magdalen of old, that he loved much: his Father the harshest of old crabbed men he loved with warmth, with veneration. (Chapter 2.3.VII p.368)

Maximilien Robespierre:

But the Chief Priest and Speaker of this place [the Jacobin assembly], as we said, is Robespierre, the long-winded incorruptible man. What spirit of Patriotism dwelt in men in those times, this one fact, it seems to us, will evince: that fifteen hundred human creatures, not bound to it, sat quiet under the oratory of Robespierre; nay, listened nightly, hour after hour, applausive; and gaped as for the word of life. More insupportable individual, one would say, seldom opened his mouth in any Tribune. Acrid, implacable-impotent; dull-drawling, barren as the Harmattan-wind! He pleads, in endless earnest-shallow speech, against immediate War, against Woollen Caps or Bonnets Rouges, against many things; and is the Trismegistus and Dalai-Lama of Patriot men. Whom nevertheless a shrill-voiced little man, yet with fine eyes, and a broad beautifully sloping brow, rises respectfully to controvert: he is, say the Newspaper Reporters, 'M. Louvet, Author of the charming Romance of Faublas.' Steady, ye Patriots! Pull not yet two ways; with a France rushing panic-stricken in the rural districts, and a Cimmerian Europe storming in on you! (Chapter 2.5.IX, p.452)

Monday, 18 August 2008

Carlyle’s French Revolution

The French Revolution: A History, Thomas Carlyle, 1834-7: I’d never read it and kept hearing and reading about it. I asked a colleague whose judgment I trusted whether he’d read it; when he replied, ‘Oh, yes,’ as if that went without saying, I decided the time had come, so (being retired) I read it, twice.

But it took some doing. What I found on opening the book was profoundly discouraging and it took will-power to keep reading. The first chapter seems to assume that the reader already knows a great deal about the reign of Louis XV: names are mentioned without explanation and mysterious incidents alluded to. (In the end I was able to understand all this, but only by re-reading carefully and looking things up.) A more seriously impediment, though, because it pervaded the whole book, was Carlyle’s style, which seemed overblown and ham-rhetorical in the worst Victorian manner (the book was written between 1834 and 1837 -- and there’s quite a story about the writing, involving John Stuart Mill).

Here, as an example, is a passage from the sixth page of my edition (Chapter 1.1.II: what I'm giving here is taken from the free Gutenberg Project download version):

Sovereigns die and Sovereignties: how all dies, and is for a Time only; is a 'Time-phantasm, yet reckons itself real!' The Merovingian Kings, slowly wending on their bullock-carts through the streets of Paris, with their long hair flowing, have all wended slowly on,—into Eternity. Charlemagne sleeps at Salzburg, with truncheon grounded; only Fable expecting that he will awaken. Charles the Hammer, Pepin Bow-legged, where now is their eye of menace, their voice of command? Rollo and his shaggy Northmen cover not the Seine with ships; but have sailed off on a longer voyage. The hair of Towhead (Tête d'étoupes) now needs no combing; Iron-cutter (Taillefer) cannot cut a cobweb; shrill Fredegonda, shrill Brunhilda have had out their hot life-scold, and lie silent, their hot life-frenzy cooled. Neither from that black Tower de Nesle descends now darkling the doomed gallant, in his sack, to the Seine waters; plunging into Night: for Dame de Nesle now cares not for this world's gallantry, heeds not this world's scandal; Dame de Nesle is herself gone into Night. They are all gone; sunk,—down, down, with the tumult they made; and the rolling and the trampling of ever new generations passes over them, and they hear it not any more forever.

And yet withal has there not been realised somewhat? Consider (to go no further) these strong Stone-edifices, and what they hold! Mud-Town of the Borderers (Lutetia Parisiorum or Barisiorum) has paved itself, has spread over all the Seine Islands, and far and wide on each bank, and become City of Paris, sometimes boasting to be 'Athens of Europe,' and even 'Capital of the Universe.' Stone towers frown aloft; long-lasting, grim with a thousand years. Cathedrals are there, and a Creed (or memory of a Creed) in them; Palaces, and a State and Law. Thou seest the Smoke-vapour; unextinguished Breath as of a thing living. Labour's thousand hammers ring on her anvils: also a more miraculous Labour works noiselessly, not with the Hand but with the Thought. How have cunning workmen in all crafts, with their cunning head and right-hand, tamed the Four Elements to be their ministers; yoking the winds to their Sea-chariot, making the very Stars their Nautical Timepiece;—and written and collected a Bibliotheque du Roi; among whose Books is the Hebrew Book! A wondrous race of creatures: these have been realised, and what of Skill is in these: call not the Past Time, with all its confused wretchednesses, a lost one.

“And yet withal has there not been realised somewhat?” -- what sort of English was that? It wasn’t, I was sure, the normal English of the 1830s. (I had one answer: it was the sort of English into which our pompous grammar school headmaster would translate the Greek texts we were studying: ‘Yet would she not brook it’ etc.)

How had my colleague managed to plough through this stuff and come away from it with, evidently, respect? Consider: the trite generalisation that ‘all dies’ (really?), all passes on -- dramatic dash: ‘--into Eternity’ (capitalised); semi-colons where we would have commas, separating main and subordinate clauses; inversions -- ‘cover not the Seine with ships’; rhetorical questions: ‘where now is their eye of menace…?’. And what of: ‘…have had out their hot life-scold, and lie silent, their hot life-frenzy cooled’? those strange hyphenated double nouns (elsewhere double adjectives), some of them seeming to belong more to Anglo-Saxon than to 19th century English, or at least to the liberties that Milton took with the language. ‘Neither’ for ‘nor’ at the beginning of that strange sentence, ‘Neither from that black Tower de Nesle descends now darkling the doomed gallant’, with inversion and over-the-top alliteration. ‘They are all gone; sunk,—down, down’: it could be a Kenneth Williams line from a Carry On film. And so it goes on: ‘Thou seest…; the strange italics; the exclamation marks. Excessive to the point of self-parody, it all seems.

Well, I can report that one gets used to the style and before long takes it for granted, as one does the conventions of opera; in time Carlyle’s neologisms, syntactic contortions and rhetorical figures come to seem appropriate for the scale and ambition of the work. In his review, Mill said The French Revolution was ‘an epic poem’, as well as being ‘the truest of histories’: he seems right on the first point and scholarship appears to have concluded that he was on the second too: Carlyle can be faulted for missing some sources he might have consulted but his use of what he had was sound and accurate.

As time allows I’m thinking I'll post a number of entries with extracts that show the characteristics of the book that make it worth reading -- twice, in my case: what I got out of it was vastly increased the second time. Behind this intention is in part a general conviction that what English (in schools) counts as ‘literature’ ought to broadened to include--as it once did--books like this one. If I were teaching now (a phrase I'm aware I've used before) I'd try bits of Carlyle on them.

But mainly I want to persuade you is that Carlyle is worth our reading.

I'll reserve for another posting some of the reasons why I'm glad I read the book--apart from the huge influence he is said to have had on later 19th century writers, including novelists. Meanwhile, here’s another opinion. George Saintsbury (I've written about him before--consult the ‘labels’) in his History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1896) describes Carlyle’s overall opus as ‘thirty volumes of the most brilliant, the most stimulating, the most varied, the most original work in English literature’ (p.238):

Carlyle's style is not seldom spoken of as compact of tricks and manners; and no doubt these are present in it. Yet a narrow inspection will show that its effect is by no means due so much in reality as in appearance to the retaining of capital letters, the violent breaches and aposiopeses, the omission of pronouns and colourless parts of speech generally, the coining of new words, and the introduction of unusual forms. These things are often there, but they are not always ; and even when they are, there is something else much more important, much more characteristic, but also much harder to put the finger on. There is in Carlyle's fiercer and more serious passages a fiery glow of enthusiasm or indignation, in his lighter ones a quaint felicity of unexpected humour, in his expositions a vividness of presentment, in his arguments a sledge-hammer force, all of which are not to be found together anywhere else, and none of which are to be found anywhere in quite the same form. And despite the savagery both of his indignation and his laughter, there is no greater master of tenderness. Wherever he is at home, and he seldom wanders far from it, the weapon of Carlyle is like none other--it is the very sword of Goliath.

The French Revolution has to be considered as a work of Romantic literature: there was such a thing as Romantic history, about which good stuff has been written. More of that, and of what Carlyle thought he was doing, another time.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Reading the Pisan Cantos

Their reputation is of inaccessibility, presumably because of inscrutable references, multitudes of fragments that aren’t sentences, apparent lack of continuity of sense from one bit to another and absence of obvious verse pattern and metre.

But I read them with some pleasure after the sort of minimal preparation that an English teacher could give a class in half a lesson: I'd simply read the introduction (by Richard Sieburth) -- but not the notes that explained most of the specific references. From the introduction I knew that Pound wrote these cantos in a US military prison after the Allied occupation of Italy in 1944, while he was awaiting trial for treason on account of his wartime broadcasts on (Fascist) Rome Radio. I knew that in the first weeks of incarceration he may have been going mad, and I knew something of physical layout and location of the camp. I knew that Pound was in the medical quarters in his own tent with a packing case to write on, with the use of one of the unit’s typewriters every night, and that in the poems he gives the name of the Chinese Mount Taishan to the mountain he could see to the west.

So what could one get out of, say, the beginning of Canto 81, with just that preparation? And what could a class of older secondary school students get out of it with some help from their English teacher? Although it doesn’t make much sense to look at only one page of a 5-page canto, it doesn’t make no sense and I want to get this into one posting. So here’s the first page (click to enlarge):

OK. Lines 1-3:
Recognisable as Greek mythology: Zeus, Ceres, Cythera; we don’t need to know who they are (except that Zeus is male and perhaps that he’s king of the gods); whether he lay in Ceres’ bosom I don’t know. Greek and Chinese (Taishan) myth coexisting -- and associated with the ordinary Italian mountain visible through Pound’s tent flap. Some of us might recall that episodes in the Iliad and Odyssey often open with what the gods are doing on Mount Olympus, so we’re set up to expect something Homeric -- which in the event we don’t particularly get in this passage, though aspects of the settings referred to (marshes, mountains, goat bells in the night) are vaguely of that world.

Cuts to the world of Greek mythology emerge as a repeated device as one continues to read the Cantos. They are one example of the many elements that turn out to be repeated, echoing each other throughout the poem or, perhaps better, emerging here and there and then going back underground, tapestry-like. The repetition makes them more meaningful, and it's one reason why going back and reading from the beginning again can be rewarding.

Before sunrise, so still the night of love, is perhaps the general sense one can get.

That’s the sense: but now note the sound:

First the phonetics -- that sibilance (10 s or z sounds in 3 lines, and sh in ‘Taishan’ is similar), but note that line 2 is less sibilant and you have two t’s and two related d’s (likewise dentals) that are picked up in ‘under’. Impossible to explain exactly why, I suppose, but I admire the sound of those first three lines -- the contrast between 2 and 1 is lovely, ‘attended’ and ‘under’ are so refreshing after all the s’s -- and now I note, too, the vowel pattern in ‘loves’, ‘under’, ‘sunrise’.

There's contrast, too, (second point) in syntax:

Zeus lies in Ceres’ bosom
Taishan is attended of loves

noun/subject, verb, adverbial -- but:
‘lies’: active, intransitive;
‘is attended’: passive, transitive.
Then line 3, (under Cythera, before sunrise) two adverbial phrases, no new verbs, no clean new line but the mid-way start indicating an extra item, a bit more -- the speaker not yet wanting to leave (the delicious love-making?).

Third, metre:

line 1, 4 stresses; 7 syllables, 3 of them unstressed but no more than one unstressed at a time;

line 2, not sure whether ‘Taishan’ has two equal stresses; 8 syllables, two dactyls (one stress followed by two unstressed together, da di di): ‘-an is at’, ‘-ended of’;

line 3 breaks into two halves (caesura) with a beautiful contrast in the rhythms -- note the stresses: únder Cythéra / befóre sunrise

Lines 4-8:
[Note that the line numbering here registers the lines of print in this particular edition; if the pages were wider, ‘catholithismo’ would be the end of line 4. Students need to be taught the difference between what are contingent typographers’ lines and what are (structural) verse lines.]

‘and he said’: you have to register pretty quickly that ‘he’ isn’t Zeus or Taishan but someone quite different, with no necessary connection -- and learn to expect such sudden discontinuities, which one might want to associate with the poet’s delirious state. As I read through a longer passage with many such breaks and jumps I think of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, though she’s randomly associating because nearly asleep, not because losing her mind. Whatever, I can’t help reading into the poem a disordered mind--of the speaking persona, of course, not the actual poet (this is a poem, not Pound’s direct testimony).

So now, scanning the whole page, let’s note that there are several snatches of remembered speech (and writing: Bowers, line 22); they seem to relate to Spain but come from different times: 1906 and 1917, ‘forty years gone’ (1904 or so), and the late '30s apparently -- Franco, Spanish Civil War. We don’t know when Dolores said, ‘eat bread, me lad’, but if she was painted by Sargent, who we might have heard of (but it doesn't matter if not), that could put broad bounds on the possible date if we were bothered to find out.

The Spanish that isn’t translated isn’t too hard to get: if you know that ‘Hay aquí’ is ‘Here is’ you can guess the rest -- and enjoy the wit of ‘plenty of Catholicism, not much religion’, and ponder its meaning -- and wonder if Pound’s pointing out the ‘th’ and ‘h’ sounds is a comment on the speaker’s dialect or just on how (educated) Spanish sounds (in Spain).

I've no idea (without looking at the notes) what Sargent’s descending, or not, refers to. In this poem I'm clearly just going to have to live with not getting a lot of the allusions. But we don’t have to know. I don’t know who Bowers was but I can guess that he was talking about the Spanish Civil War, and I can imagine some travelling-rough context in which the speaker long ago was advised where to eat and sleep (with more study I might see Odysseus here) and I can get it that the hostess wasn’t too distressed by the death of her husband. And notice how economically a scene is evoked, by a couple of images between which no explicit connection is made: ‘goat bells tinkled all night’ and ‘the hostess grinned [and said]’ -- that’s enough; it can be left to us to make the connection.

These are things, evidently, that stick in the speaker’s memory, one evoking another by a logic that isn’t always clear from the outside.

More tight analysis would get wearisome so I'll say the rest in a summary way. My message is that there’s much to enjoy (and that there’s more enjoyment to be had as one reads on and comes upon repetitions: “Come pan, niño” recurs several times). However, while a teacher’s or critic’s enjoyment may be infectious, one can’t teach it, and the job is rather to point out what’s there in the work and make sure that features that are important for the effect are noticed and not missed. So here are a couple of them, briefly:

The stateliness of the language (vocabulary, reference and rhythm) noted in the first three lines isn’t maintained. If you know how to pronounce ‘Yo creo que los reyes desaparecen’, there’s no way you can fit that into any recognisable metre; and your diction can’t get less poetic than ‘i.e. if he descended’ and ‘i.e. friends of Franco working in London’ -- though all the same we can sense a nice rhythm and parallelism in that last phrase, as in

hot wind came from the marshes
and death-chill from the mountains

and in

the books cost a peseta,
brass candlesticks in proportion

and there’s a stateliness in the English translations of Spanish: ‘Kings will, I think, disappear’ seems more dignified than the Spanish ‘Yo creo que’, and ‘it is mourning, my husband is dead’ is powerfully stark. I can enjoy the phrasing -- the pausing and letting it run -- forced on me in saying to myself ‘but such hatred, I never conceived such’, and

but in those days he did thumb sketches,
impressions of the Velásquez in the Museo del Prado

(great second line: note the two da di di di feet -- I don’t know what they’re called)

So, the bits that we can savour for the formal patterning of their sound and structure are embedded amongst prosaic, everyday, unpoetical stuff.

Finally, look at how much gets into the page in the way of contexts and topics: gods, religion, the survival of kings, a hungry boy, a modern painter and his model, a classic painter's works in a gallery, Spain and Spanish and the Civil War, prices, climate and landscape, politics in London and Spain, sounds of the rural night, travelling rough, a bar or inn with a happy widow--her grin sticks in the mind.

What you would get in other passages and don’t here is quotations from the poets (though ‘attended of loves’ sounds as if it might be one). And Chinese characters.

If I were teaching English now, I'd risk doing a bit of the Cantos with some classes; I think they’d grasp what’s going on in this page and some would be interested -- what a different way of writing from what they’re normally invited or made to do. So I'd ask them also to write a short canto of their own: contentwise, a string of fragments of their own memory, of scenes, situations, things people said, bits of remembered poems or sayings or headlines; formwise, put it in lines in such a way as to bring out rhythms, and shape the rhythms so that you like how they go and so they may even be memorable.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

George Saintsbury in an unorthodox education

A friend and former colleague who had taught for many years in Montreal / Canada but who grew up, taught in a school and got his degrees in Karachi, picked up my comments on the literary critic and historian George Saintsbury and writes as follows:

"Thanks for those words about George Saintsbury. I may not have told you that I never went to college or university in Karachi where I obtained my BA and MA as what was called a "private student," a privilege afforded to teachers who had as I only their basic teaching qualifications. In fact because my family could not afford to send any of us to college, I took up teaching so I could further my education within some framework or other. And of course I chose to major in English and Philosophy simply because I was a reader. All we were offered was a copy of the university syllabus, and the right to appear for the annual university examinations each year, and if we passed, move up to the next year of study.

Actually, four of my teaching colleagues and with the encouragement of our Principal, formed a college of our own, and thus met during term each weekday late into the night (after a full day of teaching, several games of badminton, and supper) to share our readings and research. The British Council library was a great help, but I could find only whatever, full time students from the various colleges had not noticed ; so that much of my reading in terms of commentary/ criticism was from outside the recommended lists set by college English profs. Saintsbury's History of Englit was my introduction and guide to finding my way through English literature. I was also told about Legouis and Cazamian's History of English Lit as well, and it was of particular interest to me because if offered a non-English perspective. Both Saintsbury and L and C were accessible to a stranger who had to make sense of what he read several screens apart from the actual living English world.. But that effort at least engaged our creative imagination and no one had to tell us anything about universal appeal and all that. In retrospect, I came to understand why I was so much focused on reader response and respect for the reader; however outlandish their readings might seem, that was all they had on offer. And I also learned how collaboratively we made up our accounts of what we had read. So as you can see, your mention of Saintsbury did take me back a long way."

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Harold Rosen again

In my posting about Harold the other day I clean forgot to include a link to the admirable obituary of him by John Richmond in the Guardian.

The funeral is tomorrow. Details:

Wednesday August 13th starting at 14:00 hrs.
St.Marylebone Crematorium, East Finchley: East End Road, N2 0RZ.
Tel: 020 8343 2233

This will be a non-religious ceremony with music (including two short live choral pieces) at which members of the family will make their tributes.

Flowers will be provided by the family.

Chosen charities for anyone who wishes to make contributions are as follows:
- Macmillan Cancer Support: 0207 8407840, 89 Albert Embankment, London SE1 7UQ
- Médecins sans Frontières: 0207 4046600, 67 - 74 Saffron Hill, London EC1N 8QX

Monday, 11 August 2008

Pound’s Pisan Cantos: and Kenner

There’s a pub I sometimes go to called the Yorkshire Grey, near the BBC. I read in the paper that in their stays in London Rimbaud lodged opposite and Ezra Pound lived next door and referred to it in his Pisan Cantos. That was as good a reason as any to read the PCs (at last), so on my holiday I did. I had looked cursorily at the Cantos before and, I imagine like most of us, had been put off: Chinese and Greek script, lots of stuff in other languages, unidentifiable references. So I was surprised how much I enjoyed the read.

More on what there is to enjoy in another posting. This one is about Hugh Kenner’s book on Pound, The Pound Era, Faber & Faber, 1972. The Introduction to my Pisan Cantos mentioned that he explained how one passage of Canto 81 is a resumé of English verse forms from the middle ages to the 19th century. That sounded intriguing, and, since I couldn’t see from the poem itself how it was that, I got Kenner out from Senate House Library. (Where I always enjoy going--it’s so impenetrable and impossible and reeks of another era when students read books; the annotations in the Kenner showed that some readers had indeed been studying the Canto seriously. I was able to tease apart the layers of date-stamped issue sheets and counted that the book had been out about 120 times since 1972, though only once in 2007 and once in 2008. I hope the kids are at least reading something else instead.)

Kenner does indeed describe (pp.486-93) how Pound scans the history of English metres, but I was struck by the passage immediately before that on Pound’s notoriously dodgy translations and on sound in poetry. Then, when gets on to metre and rhythm, Kenner I think is brilliant. He has the ear and can make the reader hear what he hears (which makes him the right sort of critic for English teachers, since their job too is to get their students to hear poetry.) Here’s the passage:

What do I think about that claim that in the Seafarer bard ‘the gestures of tongue and expulsions of breath… mimed… the emotions of exile’? Like so many claims in lit crit, impossible to prove; but I find the general idea plausible. Emotions, after all, are physical as well as mental states (see Antonio Damasio, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain); there’s no reason why they should not inhere in movements of tongue and breath as well as in those of face and stance. Whether that particular Old English line expressed those particular emotions (of exile) seems more doubtful: my impression is that that language was full of wu- and wa- and wor- and -ac and -ea and -ath sounds even when the meaning wasn’t being gloomy, lonely, despairing or angry; I find more desolation in the sense that the weak hold the world--not a globe, of course, for the bard but the whole earth, however he pictured it--as if this was something the whole of which could be held, with no space left for seafarers, so total and hopeless is the takeover by the weak.

I like the idea, which teachers of poetry might take to heart even if it’s wrong in this instance, that ‘To develop his sense was the least of the Seafarer-bard’s concerns; the meanings of the words fit in somehow, vessels to receive his longing, as the structure of sound is built up, prolonged, modulated.’ Then Kenner gives us Yeats struggling to do the same sort of thing.

The pages that follow the passage I've copied deal with the iambic pentameter which Pound had tried to ‘break’, believing it be ‘a thickening (based on five stresses) of the Italian hendecasyllabic (based on 11 syllables)’ (later, p.489) and alien imposition on English. Anyone who’s tried to write poetry finds themselves being inexorably pulled towards that di-da di-da di-da di-da di-da so it’s hard to believe that it isn’t natural to the language, but of course Pound and ‘Jo Bard’ (‘Josef Bard (1882-1975), Hungarian writer’, say my Notes) are quite right to say that the speech of ‘bakers and concierges’ could never get into it. English verse, in Pound’s belief (and evidently Kenner’s), has been distanced from the rhythms of speech since its colonisation by the pentameter and the decasyllabic, of which the pentameter is one variety.

In the earlier Cantos Pound had largely escaped that literary pull: his ‘first heave’ had been to ‘break the pentameter’ (and decasyllabic) so as to readmit the rhythms of speech. In the process he developed his own signature, ‘a spondee [dá dá] terminating the line’ (that’s the sort of thing I wish I were better at noticing).

Now, however, in Canto 81, in the US military prison camp at Pisa, he transacts ‘a courtship with the eponymous English decasyllabic itself, since Chaucer the language's most pervasive measure’ (488).

‘[H]e suddenly finds himself speaking words of Chaucer’s Your eyen two wold sleye me sodenly I may the beauté of hem nat susteyne ….And these pure English decasyllabics are followed by the contemporary speaking voice: And for 180 years almost nothing. Then decasyllabic reasserts itself [with a line of Dante in Italian, and then] there came new subtlety of eyes into my tent whether of spirit or hypostasis …. Then three more irregular lines; then, then, the anonymous genius of English asserts itself: Sáw but the éyes and stánce betwéen the eyes a full-blooded iambic pentameter, not simply ten syllables but five unmistakeable stresses.’
(The ‘anonymous genius of English’ thus seems to be a genius that shows itself in verse and not in speech. I confess I don’t feel I've got Kenner’s argument quite straight.)

Kenner goes on -- well, read the scanned text as the layout and stress marks may not be preserved if I type them:
A lively feature of these Cantos is the constant irruption of ‘ordinary speech’ in amongst the obviously poetic (the ghosts are of the poets Pound has been echoing):

I find it a pleasure following a reader like Kenner. Next time I'll address Pound.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Pavements in Plogoff

Here’s a large village in Brittany with, running through it, the main road (not very busy) to the Land’s End of Finistère, Pointe du Raz. The commune was working on the layout of roadway, pavement, kerb, crossings, gutter, parking, and I liked what they were doing. In fact, most of it was finished and the masons were building the short, low, free-standing walls I've mentioned before (post of 28.7.08) that provide a support and anchor for flowering plants, prevent parking, separate pedestrians from traffic and look nice. (Click to enlarge.)

To the right of the wall at the front you see the new strip which will be the edge of the pavement. It’s very slightly raised above the level of the roadway but is distinguished from it by its different colour and texture, which makes the street seem wider.

That’s how crossings are done too:

Notice none of the garish yellow lines, or white equivalents, let alone the double ones, that disfigure English towns and villages as if it goes without saying that the aesthetics of the place can be casually sacrificed to the control of parking.

On country roads most you get an unobtrusive broken white line: you don’t park on the roadway side of the line, though you can on the other side if there’s room. This is on the road into Plogoff:

If they want to prevent parking on the pavement, they use walls if there is room or a blue metal barrier or blue posts:

In fact I never discovered the rules for parking. I got the impression that not much enforcement is needed, or they don’t fuss too much about it: those cars on the road on the right may be out of order. It seems the French, at least in these parts, aren’t prepared to ruin the place with lines and signs: the markings were understated and people were expected to be sensible and responsible. Which mostly they were.

I even liked the gutters. (The opposite pavement clearly hasn’t been redone.)

Friday, 8 August 2008

Harold Rosen: hero of English

Harold Rosen has just died aged 89. He was my PGCE tutor at the London Institute of Education and the best teacher I ever had in higher education, including four years at Oxford, and the first to show me that university work could be about ideas. (Admittedly, the subjects I'd studied -- classics and English -- were not at Oxford noted for intellectually lively content.) He was probably also the first really intelligent and forceful person of the left to whom I had any real exposure.

He was right about English teaching in so many ways -- and had been right, I now discover, as head of English in 1956-58 at Walworth School (an LCC ‘experimental’ comprehensive, founded in 1946 and with a predominantly secondary modern intake).

Thanks to Simon Clements, who also taught at the school and has had the foresight to keep key documents, I've just yesterday seen the syllabus Harold wrote for the department in early 1958, a neat 50 years ago. It warrants a longer post but a couple of points, remarkable for the age in which they were written, immediately struck me.

First, he notes the huge gap between the home language of Walworth’s working-class pupils (the community revolved around the docks) and the language they need if they’re to participate in communications beyond the locality. He stresses the tact that teachers need to exercise by starting by welcoming anything the pupils want to say, whatever the language they can use most easily, when it’s spoken (or written, always after the chance to talk) out of an honest desire to express experience or share views. Starting from that acceptance and respect, you then only gradually work to extend the scope of their language -- but he’s quite clear that is your aim, and he’s very specific about the teaching of spelling, punctuation etc, the value of comprehension work (always done orally first), and above all the need for lots of reading, including works normally considered ‘demanding’.

Second, in 1958 he’s recommending reading Lord of the Flies and Salinger with the fourth year (now known as Year 10)! I'm surprised to learn that Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951 -- I've just looked it up.)

The top pic comes from an interesting site about residents of Muswell Hill, London. The one below, rather different, comes from an equally interesting piece in Socialist Worker Online.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Slow posting

I'm intending to up the frequency of my blogging. As it is, I'm back from a long spell in Brittany to lots of more urgent stuff, the most important being my first visit to new grandson, Johnny.

I know I indicated that I might do a post on road surfaces, pavements, crossings etc in Plogoff and that the world is still waiting.

Well, not much longer, I hope.

Windmills in Brittany

My inner jury’s out on the aesthetics of windmills in landscapes. France is the place to see them, where they’re called Eoliennes, after Aeolus, the God of the Winds.

I suspect their impact depends more on the state of the sky than that of the land.

If the scene is a bit boring and not pretty, windmills are a definite enhancement.

Up closer, I love their size. Aptly, a friend commented that they recall Triffids -- but he may have meant those other tripod-like creatures in some other John Christopher novel.