Category Archives: British Literature

We Live by Hope: A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr

Hope is a thing with feathers, according to Emily Dickinson.

And Max Porter.

Hope floats, according to the film title.

Pope writes in his “An Essay on Man” that “Hope springs eternal.”

In Aeschylus’s play, Prometheus says he gave to humans the gift of blind hope.

Pink, in her new collaboration with Khalid “Hurts 2B Human,” sings that “hope flows away.”

And hope is the one thing, quite ambiguously, left in Pandora’s box of evils. Is hope also considered an evil? And, if so, should we be glad that it was held in the box? Or is hope a good thing, left behind in the box and now separated from evil?

Tom Birkin, the narrator of J.L. Carr’s novella A Month in the Country, spends the summer of 1920 in the small English town of Oxgodby when he is hired to restore a medieval mural in the town’s church. It is Tom’s hope that by spending a summer in this quiet town that the horrible memories and shell shock he suffered during World War I and the failed marriage with his wife Vinny will begin to fade away:

The marvelous thing was coming into this haven of calm water and, for a season, not having to worry my head with anything but uncovering their wall-painting for them. And, afterwards, perhaps I could make a new start, forget what the war and the rows with Vinny had done to me and begin where I’d left off. This is what I need, I thought—a new start and, afterwards, maybe I won’t be a casualty anymore.

Well, we live by hope.

It is the connections that Tom makes with the other people in Oxgodby during this idyllic summer that help him to lose his stammer and his facial twitches.  The Ellerbeck family feeds him and welcomes them into their home; Charles Moon, who is also doing work for the church, is a fellow veteran who understands his wounds; and Alice Keach is the pastor’s wife with whom he spends many hours talking.  The bucolic setting also goes a long way to healing Tom who came from the noise and bustle of London.  Carr’s version of hope is the positive kind, the one that leads us to take action, like Birkin did, towards something new and joyful.

This was the perfect summer read for an afternoon sitting in my garden oasis with the birds singing in the trees, the frogs croaking in the pond and my neighbor’s horse neighing in the distance.  Listening, contemplating, hoping…

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Trust in the Future as Little as Possible: The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

I usually devour a 350-page book in a couple of days, but Woolf’s writing, both her fiction and non-fiction, demands careful attention and a slow read. It took me a week to read The Voyage Out, Woolf’s first novel that was published in 1915. She is just beginning to experiment with what will become her signature, stream-of-consciousness style. She pokes fun at the uptight, British upper class who, even while on holiday in a tropical South American climate, insist on wearing furs and formal coats and having tea every afternoon promptly at 5:00. Even though on the surface they engage in polite conversation about politics, suffrage, and social gossip, Woolf gives us a glimpse of what they are really thinking. She introduces us to Rachael, her heroine, by her own thoughts as she sits in her drawing room in solitude on her father’s ship:

To feel anything strongly was to create an abyss between oneself and others who feel strongly perhaps but differently. It was far better to play the piano and forget all the rest. The conclusion was very welcome. Let these odd men and women—her aunts, the Hunts, Ridley, Helen, Mr. Pepper, and the rest—be symbols,—featureless but dignified symbols of age, of youth, of motherhood, of learning, and beautiful often as people upon the stage are beautiful. It appeared that nobody ever said a thing they meant, or ever talked of a feeling they felt, but that was what music was for.

Rachael is a very naïve twenty-four-year old who was raised by her spinster aunts and her widowed father. Her Aunt Helen, who is also on the voyage to South American, invites Rachael to stay at her villa for the winter in the hopes of better educating her about life and bringing her out of her sheltered existence. When they land in South American, Rachael and her aunt socialize with the British upper class men and women who are staying at the local hotel. Among these guests is Terence Hewett, an financially independent twenty-seven-year-old man who likes to travel and dabbles in writing novels. Both Rachael and Terence have never been in love; even though they are mentally and physically attracted to one another they spend a lot of time drawing close and then pulling back from one another because their feelings terrify them.

Once they finally confess their feelings and allow themselves to be happy, Rachael and Terence start planning their wedding and have a few weeks of bliss. But The Voyage Out ends in tragedy. It’s a shame that the lovers wasted so much time before they decided to embrace what would make them both happy. Horace’s Ode 1.11, the famous Carpe Diem poem kept coming to mind as I read Woolf’s novel (translation is my own):

May you not ask to know what end
—for it is not right—the gods might
have in store either for you or for me
Leuconoe, and may you also not consult
Babylonian Astrology. How much better
it is to endure whatever will be, whether
Jupiter has allotted us more winters, or
if this is the last, the winter which weakens
the Tyrrhenian Sea with opposing rocks. May
you be wise, may you strain your wine, and
because life is brief, may you give up any
long-term hopes. As we are speaking, envious
time slips by. Seize the day, trust in
the future as little as possible.

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De Senectute: Sappho, Ovid, Tennyson, Musil and Cicero

Aurora Taking Leave of Tithonus. Francesco Solimena. 1704

In classical mythology Tithonus was a Trojan prince with whom Eos (Aurora to the Romans), goddess of the dawn, falls in love.  This deity, whom Homer calls “rosy-fingered,” captures Tithonus and sweeps him off to the home of the gods and asks Zeus to grant Tithonus immortality.  Eos, however, forgets to also ask for eternal youth.  Even though Tithonus is immortal, he grows old and frail.  Sappho, in her “Tithonus” or “Old Age” poem uses him as a metaphor to illustrate the effects of her own aging (translation is my own):

Old age has already taken from me my once soft skin,
and my hair, at one time so dark, has grown white.
My spirit has grown heavy, my knees, which used to be
nimble enough to dance like fawns, no longer carry me.
I mourn these things but what can I do about it?
It is not possible for men to be ageless. For at one time
they say that Eos, smitten by love, carried off Tithonus in her
rosy arms to the edge of the earth, he who was handsome
and young; but in time gray old-age took hold of him who
was a still a husband to an immortal wife.

In Ovid there is a brief mention of Tithonus as Aurora and some of the other goddesses complain that they cannot stop the aging of their mortal lovers )trans. my own): “Aurora, daughter of Pallas, mourned the old age of her own husband.”  But, as Sappho says, what could she do?

What is missing in these myths is Tithonus’s own words.  Tennyson’s brilliant poem about the Trojan prince gives him that voice: “Let me go: take back thy gift,” Tithonus begs her.  He laments his inevitable aging, recognizes that as humans we must accept this fate, and pleads with Eos to release him from his immortality. I offer here one of my favorite stanzas, but please do read the entire poem:

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world,
A white-hair’d shadow roaming like a dream
The ever-silent spaces of the East,
Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn.
Alas! for this gray shadow, once a man—

So glorious in his beauty and thy choice,
Who madest him thy chosen, that he seem’d
To his great heart none other than a God!
I ask’d thee, ‘Give me immortality.’
Then didst thou grant mine asking with a smile,
Like wealthy men, who care not how they give.
But thy strong Hours indignant work’d their wills,
And beat me down and marr’d and wasted me,
And tho’ they could not end me, left me maim’d
To dwell in presence of immortal youth,
Immortal age beside immortal youth,
And all I was, in ashes. Can thy love,
Thy beauty, make amends, tho’ even now,
Close over us, the silver star, thy guide,
Shines in those tremulous eyes that fill with tears
To hear me? Let me go: take back thy gift:
Why should a man desire in any way
To vary from the kindly race of men
Or pass beyond the goal of ordinance
Where all should pause, as is most meet for all?

I was also reading Robert Musil’s Thought Flights over the weekend and one of his short narratives struck me as a similar commentary on aging, how we see ourselves and how others see us.  In “Susanna’s Letter,” a married woman is writing to a friend about a train journey during which she reflects on her changing body as she ages.  Her chin was “once energetic” she notices, and her neck used to be straight.  But despite these physical reminders of her age, “It is all downward going from here on out, but every step becomes calmer and more secure.”  And my favorite passage, bitter sweet—both hopeful yet sad—from the story is the one in which she connects her aging body to her spouse (trans. Genese Grill):

My husband much have seen every details of my body by now, and he loves me anyway; he loves me as I am.  Sometimes that makes him unbearable to me.  For it takes all my power from me.  I should say, it takes all the fantasizing out of my body.  Then I am like a finished book, one that has already been declared to be very beautiful; for, the fact that a book is beautiful is no consolation for its having already been read.

On one final, positive note, in Cicero’s philosophical treaty De Senectute (On Old Age), he writes (trans. my own):

I follow and obey nature who is the best guide as if she were a divinity; it cannot be true that she has arranged well the other parts of our lives but then, like a bad poet,  neglected the final act of the drama.  It is necessary, however, that there be a certain kind of end, frail and withered with a timely maturity,  just as the berries on the trees and the fruits of earth, which wise men must gently endure.  To fight against nature would be as useless as the giants rebeling against the gods.

 

 

 

 

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A Silent Suffering, and Intense: Prometheus in Byron and Shelley

I’m about half way through Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets. It has been slow going because I keep pausing to read additional poems of the authors he discusses in his wonderful book.  I am glad that I will still be with Schmidt well into the summer.  Schmidt has caused me to look at the works of poets whom I’ve only encountered in English literature survey courses as an undergraduate.  For example, reading the poems of Byron and Shelley it’s been fascinating for me to compare their depictions of the ancient Greek Titan, Prometheus.

Byron’s “Prometheus”:

Titan! to whose immortal eyes
The sufferings of mortality,
Seen in their sad reality,
Were not as things that gods despise;
What was thy pity’s recompense?
A silent suffering, and intense;
The rock, the vulture, and the chain,
All that the proud can feel of pain,
The agony they do not show,
The suffocating sense of woe,
Which speaks but in its loneliness,
And then is jealous lest the sky
Should have a listener, nor will sigh
Until its voice is echoless.

Titan! to thee the strife was given
Between the suffering and the will,
Which torture where they cannot kill;
And the inexorable Heaven,
And the deaf tyranny of Fate,
The ruling principle of Hate,
Which for its pleasure doth create
The things it may annihilate,
Refus’d thee even the boon to die:
The wretched gift Eternity
Was thine—and thou hast borne it well.
All that the Thunderer wrung from thee
Was but the menace which flung back
On him the torments of thy rack;
The fate thou didst so well foresee,
But would not to appease him tell;
And in thy Silence was his Sentence,
And in his Soul a vain repentance,
And evil dread so ill dissembled,
That in his hand the lightnings trembled.

Thy Godlike crime was to be kind,
To render with thy precepts less
The sum of human wretchedness,
And strengthen Man with his own mind;
But baffled as thou wert from high,
Still in thy patient energy,
In the endurance, and repulse
Of thine impenetrable Spirit,
Which Earth and Heaven could not convulse,
A mighty lesson we inherit:
Thou art a symbol and a sign
To Mortals of their fate and force;
Like thee, Man is in part divine,
A troubled stream from a pure source;
And Man in portions can foresee
His own funereal destiny;
His wretchedness, and his resistance,
And his sad unallied existence:
To which his Spirit may oppose
Itself—and equal to all woes,
And a firm will, and a deep sense,
Which even in torture can descry
Its own concenter’d recompense,
Triumphant where it dares defy,
And making Death a Victory.

And the introduction to Shelley’s play “Prometheus Unbound”:

Monarch of Gods and Dæmons, and all Spirits
But One, who throng those bright and rolling worlds
Which Thou and I alone of living things
Behold with sleepless eyes! regard this Earth
Made multitudinous with thy slaves, whom thou
Requitest for knee-worship, prayer, and praise,
And toil, and hecatombs of broken hearts,
With fear and self-contempt and barren hope.
Whilst me, who am thy foe, eyeless in hate,
Hast thou made reign and triumph, to thy scorn,
O’er mine own misery and thy vain revenge.
Three thousand years of sleep-unsheltered hours,
And moments aye divided by keen pangs
Till they seemed years, torture and solitude,
Scorn and despair,—these are mine empire:—
More glorious far than that which thou surveyest
From thine unenvied throne, O Mighty God!
Almighty, had I deigned to share the shame
Of thine ill tyranny, and hung not here
Nailed to this wall of eagle-baffling mountain,
Black, wintry, dead, unmeasured; without herb,
Insect, or beast, or shape or sound of life.
Ah me! alas, pain, pain ever, for ever!
No change, no pause, no hope! Yet I endure.

I ask the Earth, have not the mountains felt?
I ask yon Heaven, the all-beholding Sun,
Has it not seen? The Sea, in storm or calm,
Heaven’s ever-changing Shadow, spread below,
Have its deaf waves not heard my agony?
Ah me! alas, pain, pain ever, for ever!

In Hesoid’s Theogony and Works and Days, Prometheus, whose name in Ancient Greek means “forethought,”  is depicted as a trickster who steals fire from Zeus in order to help mortals. Prometheus’s punishment, being chained to a rock for eternity with a vulture eating his constantly-growing-back liver is viewed as a fitting punishment. It is the Athenian tragedian Aeschylus, with his play Prometheus Bound, who changes the tone and focus of the Prometheus myth.  Aeschylus’s Prometheus is a hero who dares to defy a tyrant like Zeus and despite the consequences, embraces and accepts his punishment. Both Byron and Shelley borrow Aeschylus’s version and emphasize the pain, suffering and hopelessness suffered by the Ancient Greek hero.

On a personal note, it is the end of another semester for me and I am feeling a bit like Prometheus chained to his rock these days.  It’s been an unusually long and difficult year for me and I am looking forward to my “release” in the form of summer vacation.  In addition to Schmidt, Musil and possibly Proust are on my summer reading list.  What’s on yours?

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Why has Happiness no Second Spring: The Poetry of Charlotte Smith

Spring by Francois Boucher. 1755. The Frick Collection

Some of my favorite discoveries in Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets are neglected and new-to-me female poets.  Schmidt says of one such poet, Charlotte Smith:

Eighteen years after Cowper’s birth, in 1749, a unaccountably neglected poet (half remembered as a novelist) was born.  If Cowper had his hand on the latch of Romanticism, her foot was firmly in the door.  Wordsworth read her: Dorothy Wordsworth recalls his turning the pages of her Elegiac Sonnets, and Other Essays—the fifth edition, for she as popular in her time; and he visited her in Brighton. She treated him politely, introducing him to other women writers in the town.  In London at the end of the century she dined with the young Coleridge.  A recurrent footnote, doggedly represented in anthologies by a sonnet that is wonderful (“Pressed by the moon, mute arbitress of tides”) and to which few attend closely, she is a key poet of the transition to Romanticism.

“Written at the Close of Spring” is one of her elegiac sonnets that showcases her intimate view of nature mixed with personal meditation:

The garlands fade that Spring so lately wove,
Each simple flower, which she had nursed in dew,
Anemonies, that spangled every grove,
The primrose wan, and hare-bell mildly blue.
No more shall violets linger in the dell,
Or purple orchis variegate the plain,
Till Spring again shall call forth every bell,
And dress with humid hands her wreaths again—
Ah! poor humanity! So frail, so fair,
Are the fond visions of thy early day,
Till tyrant passion, and corrosive care,
Bid all they fairy colors fade away!
Another May new buds and flowers shall bring;
Ah! why has happiness—no second Spring?

For her elegiac poems,  like “To Night,” I agree with Michael Schmidt that, “She deserves to be read today.”

I love thee, mournful, sober-suited Night!
When the faint moon, yet lingering in her wane,
And veil’d in clouds, with pale uncertain light
Hangs o’er the waters of the restless main.
In deep depression sunk, the enfeebled mind
Will to the deaf cold elements complain,
And tell the embosom’d grief, however vain,
To sullen surges and the viewless wind.
Though no repose on they dark breast I find,
I still enjoy thee—cheerless as thou art;
For in they quiet gloom the exhausted heart
Is calm, though wretched; hopeless, yet resign’d.
While to the winds and waves its sorrows given,
May reach—though lost on earth—the ear of Heaven!

I’m eagerly awaiting my copy of Smith’s complete collection of Elegiac Sonnets.  I am also tempted to try one of her novels.  If anyone has read any of her novels, please let me know which one(s) you would recommend.

 

 

 

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