Tag Archives: British Literature

I Hold You in Imagination: The Poetry of Elizabeth Jennings

I finally received in the mail today a volume of poetry by Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001) that I have been eagerly awaiting for weeks. The edition, entitled “Timely Issues” is published by Carcanet Press, which has also printed the other volume I own, her “Selected Poems.” Jennings was very successful with her poetry in her earlier years, publishing her work in various literary magazines and winning awards and prizes. But as her life progressed, she was mentally and physically fragile and suffered from breakdowns which caused her to be hospitalized. Her illnesses, her deep Catholic roots, and the difficult love affairs in which she engaged pervade her poems. I find her poetry simple, yet profound, quite lovely, and even soothing. I include here in my post three of my favorites from the Carcanet collections; they need no commentary or analysis as I think that would ruin my post—they stand better simply, on their own.

About These Things

About these things I always shall be dumb.
Some wear their silences as more than dress,
As more than skin deep. I bear mine like some

Scar that is hidden out of shamefulness.
I speak from depths I do not understand
Yet cannot find the words for this distress.

So much of power is put into my hand
When words come easily. I sense the way
People are charmed and pause; I seem to mend

Some hurt. Some healing seems to make them stay.
And yet within the power that I use
My wordless fears remain. Perhaps I say

In lucid Verse the terrors that confuse
In Conversation. Maybe I am dumb
Because if fears were spoken I would lose

The lovely languages I do not choose
More than the darkness from which they come.

Remembering Fireworks

Always as if for the first time we watch
The fireworks as if no one had ever
Done this before, made shapes, signs,
Cut diamonds in air, sent up stars
Nameless, imperious. And in the falling
Of fire, the spent rocket, there is a kind
Of nostalgia as normally only attaches
To things long known and lost. Such an absence,
Such emptiness of sky the fireworks leave
After their festival. We, fumbling
For words of love, remember the rockets,
The spinning wheels, the sudden diamonds,
And say with delight, ‘yes, like that, like that.’
Oh and the air is full of falling
Stars surrendered. We search for a sign.

Assurance

My love, I hold you in imagination,
Either mine or yours,
And it is stronger than remembered passion.
It uses memory with all its force.

O the clocks go silent, time departs,
Now is forever here.
How delicate yet strong are our two hearts,
Mine beats for you now almost everywhere.

Only when my world is rent with storm,
Threatened by sadness or
Overcome by black words which can come
And threaten me with the inner, hideous war

Only then, I’ve lost you. O but fast
A little flash of sun,
A hurrying memory returns you blessed
And our great love is stalwartly at one.

In a wonderfully written and compelling article entitled “Clarify Me, Please, God of the Galaxies” Dana Gioia concludes about Jennings’s poetry, ” Her poems flash like meteors illuminating what it means to be human.”

What poetry is everyone else reading lately? I would love to have some new recommendations in the comments.

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Poetry

Some Thoughts on The Warden by Anthony Trollope

I was emailing a friend who has read quite a bit of Trollope and he remarked that this author’s novels are rather entertaining but when one closes the last page of some of his tales, they are soon forgotten.  After reading his messages about Trollope, and also seeing a thread on literary Twitter about The Warden,  I was very eager to give Trollope a try for myself.  I have rather mixed feelings about this first novel; some parts of it were amusing but overall I was a bit underwhelmed with my first experience in Barsetshire.

No one in Trollope’s narrative, which story involves an attempt at economic reformation of the Church,  is spared his sarcasm and ridicule.  The Warden, a kind, old man who lives with his daughter Elenor, has served his position as leader of Barchester hospital that cares for poor, elderly, retired, working class men who would otherwise be homeless.  It was established in the benefactor’s will in the 15th century that, in exchange for his minimal work, the Warden receives a yearly salary of 800 pounds and the use of a comfortable, some might even say lavish, home.  Reformers, led by a local doctor named John Bold, believe that the old bedesmen living at the hospital ought to receive a larger share of the income from the hospital’s estate.  When lawyers, other reformers, and the newspaper weigh in on the matter, the Warden is, rather unfairly,  made out to be a prime example of the greed of the clergy who take money from the poor in order to live in the lap of luxury.

The archdeacon, also the son-in-law of the Warden, is satirized by Trollope as a prime example of the Church clerics who will defend this institution at any cost:

Though doubt and hesitation disturbed the rest of our poor warden, no such weakness perplexed the nobler breast of his son-in-law.  As the indomitable cock preparing for the combat sharpens his spurs, shakes his feathers, and erects his comb, so did the archdeacon arrange his weapons for the coming war, without misgiving and without fear.  That he was fully confident of the justice of his cause let no one doubt.  Many a man can fight his battle with good courage, but with a doubting conscience; such as not the case with Dr. Grantly.  He did not believe in the Gospel with more assurance than he did in the sacred justice of all ecclesiastical revenues.

The reformers are equally a target of ridicule in Trollope’s tale.  John Bold, who had good intentions when he stirred up the whole controversy and genuinely wanted to help out the poor, old bedesmen, is easily swayed to put the matter aside because of love.  Bold is courting the Warden’s daughter, Eleanor, and when Eleanor pleads with her lover to put aside the case against the hospital and her father, he is very quick to oblige:

‘I would give her my soul, if it would serve her,’ said Bold still addressing his sister; ‘everything I have is hers, if she will accept it; my house, my heart, my all; every hope of my breast is centred in her: her smiles are sweeter to me than the sun, and when I see her in sorrow as she now is, every nerve in my body suffers.  No man can love better than I love her.’

Even though Trollope makes Bold seem a bit of a fool by giving up his attempt at reform for a woman, I was glad that Bold made this decision.  The sappy, romantic in me was glad Bold chose love over a law suit.

Trollope goes on and on poking fun at various parties involved in the attempt to redistribute the Warden’s salary among the bedesmen.  But the book ends on a rather sad note when it is the Warden and the old men at the hospital who suffer the most from the fight between the clergy and the reformers.  Although they are themselves not entirely blameless in the matter, it is their lives that are most negatively affected by the arguments of more important and influential men.

Despite my mixed feelings, I will continue with the Barsetshire Chronicles.  My friend, who I mentioned above, did remark that Barchester Towers, the next book in the series, is definitely worth a “quick spin through the eyeballs.”

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Poised Above Pleasure or Pain: Some final thoughts on The Mill on the Floss

George Eliot’s novels usually affect me very deeply and The Mill on the Floss has been no exception. When I am in the midst of one of her books, I find myself steeling every free moment I can to read it and continually thinking about the characters and plots she so masterfully creates. The plight of Maggie Tulliver, as I mentioned in a previous post, has particularly captured my attention. Maggie is not like the other English women in St. Ogg’s; she is darker skinned, with dark eyes and dark, wild hair to match. Her personality is also quite different than other women as she experiences life with more passion and intensity than is appropriate for a proper, English young lady. She craves love, kindness and affection from her taciturn and stubborn family, especially her brother and her father.

When Maggie does finally experience an intense love that matches her own passion, it is for a self-confidant man from St. Ogg’s named Stephen Guest. But when they meet both she and the object of her love are tied to other people; Stephen is engaged to Maggie’s dear cousin, Lucy, and Maggie is bound to an old, childhood romance with Philip Wakem. The sexual tension and passion that Eliot builds into Maggie and Stephen’s encounters are the stuff of literary brilliance. The two are frequently thrown into social situations in which they take pleasure in one another’s company but try to resist the temptation of this passion. In the scene before their mutual feelings are revealed, Eliot writes about Maggie: “Even the coming pain could not seem bitter—she was ready to welcome it as a part of life, for life at this moment seemed a keen vibrating consciousness poised above pleasure or pain.”

In the culminating emotional scene between them, Stephen is trying to convince himself and Maggie that they should be together even though neither of them wants to cause what will be an inevitable pain to others in their lives. Stephen’s strongest argument, I think, is when he reminds Maggie that they will end up marrying their respective fiances under false pretenses and insincere feelings: “It is unnatural: we can only pretend to give ourselves to any one else. This is wrong in that too—there may be misery in it for them as well as for us. Maggie, you must see that—you do see that.” Maggie’s response will stand out in my mind as one of those great passages found in timeless literature:

O it is difficult—life is very difficult! It seems right to me sometimes that we should follow our strongest feeling;—but then, such feelings continually come across the ties that all our former life has made for us—the ties that have made others dependent on us—and could cut them in two. If love were quite easy and simple, as it might have been in paradise, and we could always see that one being first towards whom…I mean, if life did not make duties for us before love comes, love would be a sign that two people ought to belong to each other. But I see—I feel it is not so now: there are things we must renounce in life; some of us must resign love.”

It is so utterly tragic that when she finally feels the love she craves that Maggie must give it up. I keep thinking about that now clichéd Tennyson quote as I reread this paragraph: “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Would Maggie really agree with this? Or would she rather have spared herself the pain that comes along with such a love?

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The Tongues of Eros: More Thoughts on George Steiner

There are some intriguing and surprising personal stories and anecdotes that George Steiner weaves into the essays in My Unwritten Books.  In his essay on his political and religious beliefs, for instance, he admits that he has never once in his life voted in any election, local or national.  He is an avid dog lover and the emotion he shows towards his pets, he admits in the essay “On Man and Beasts,”  sometimes runs deeper than that which he feels for his family.  And, perhaps the most intriguing statement in the book, comes in his writing about Eros: “I have been privileged to speak and make love in four languages.  Also in the interstices, sometimes inhibiting, sometimes playful, between them.”

Steiner begins with a general discussion of his thoughts on language and moves on to describe how Eros is a unique language in and of itself that has not been studied in any methodical way.

We have no systematic poetic or rhetoric of eros, of how the making of love is a making of words and syntax.  No Aristotle, no Saussure has taken up this pivotal challenge.  More specifically, we have, so far as I am aware, no study, even summary, of how sex is experienced, of how love is made in different languages and different language-sets (ethnic, economic, social, local).  Per se, the polyglot condition at varying levels of immediacy and proficiency is not all that rare.  It features in numerous communities, such as Sweden, Switzerland, Malaysia.  A multitude of men and women dispose of more than one “native” tongue, from very earliest childhood.  Yet we seem to have no valid account, no introspective or socialized record of what must be their metamorphic erotic lives.  How does lovemaking in Basque or Russian differ from that in Flemish or Korean?  What privileges or inhibitions arise between lovers with different first languages? Is coitus also, perhaps fundamentally, translation?

Steiner describes his sexual experiences with a German, Italian and French woman and gives specific details about how making love in each of these three languages was a unique experience.  Sex with a German woman he calls Ch. is described as an encounter in which the interplay of sex and sadism is prominent.  He concludes, “To make love in German can be taxing.”  It was an Italian woman, named A.M., he says that “instructed me in the litany of seduction.”  And he debunks the myth that the French culture is more amorous than any other.  He learns by having sex with a French woman that French erotic exchanges happen with formal language: “Gloriously astride me, my first teacher in the arts of orgasm, praise God, an older woman burnished by irony and compassion, bade me ‘come, come now and deep.’ But did so using the formal vous.”

I have to admit that I was disappointed that Steiner did not give equal time to describing his sexual experiences in English.  He argues that his own observations would not be able to capture any universal experiences because of the global pervasiveness of the English language: “How can any one person register more than an insignificant fraction of a sexual lexicon and grammar which stretch from the syncopations of Afro-Carribean pidgeons to the delicate love lyrics of Anglo-Bengalis, which comprise the creole of English hybrids in Southeast Asia and the worn passwords of the multinational dealer summoning his escort service to an anonymous hotel room in Istanbul or Valparaiso?” I think that at least some general statements about his lovemaking in English versus his experiences with other languages would have made the essay seem more complete.

Steiner’s concluding remarks in the essay, I suspect, are a better explanation for his omission of English sexual encounters: “Perhaps shared orgasm is an act of simultaneous translation.  I sense that I could have made a contribution, even pioneering.  But the hurt is would have done to that which is most precious and indispensable in my private life (this chapter comports risk) made this impossible.  Indiscretion much have its limits.”  Steiner’s wife, Zara, is the American-born, British historian…

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Filed under British Literature, Essay, Nonfiction

Respice Futurum: Some Reading Plans for 2018

Henricus Respicit Futurum.

As I have mentioned in a previous post, The Woodstock Academy where I have had the privilege of teaching Latin and Classics for many years now, is one of the oldest public schools in the United States and has a simple yet profound Latin motto which reflects and respects this tradition: Respice Futurum–-translated literally as “Look back at your future.” These two simple Latin words capture the idea that one moves towards the future while also reflecting on the past— it is the equivalent of moving forward on a train while sitting in a seat that is facing backward.   Respice Futurum is an fitting description for thinking about my reading plans for 2018

Respicio in Latin means more than “looking back.” One of my favorite translations of this word is “to have regard for another person’s welfare.” The Stoic philosopher Seneca, for example, applies respicio to the idea of self-improvement in his work De Clementia: sapiens omnibus dignis proderit et deorum more calamitosos propitius respiciet. (A wise man will offer help to those who are worthy and, in the manner of the gods, he especially will have regard for those in need.”) A good person, Seneca argues, always looks towards his future but uses experiences from the past to inform his decisions.  So as I look forward to books I intend to read in 2018, I can’t help but consider which literary selections in 2017 have influenced my choices.  Which books, based on previous choices, will give me a chance for deep reflection and even self-improvement?

Based on my past experiences, there are a few of my favorite publishers that put out spectacular books year after year.  A few of these titles I am looking forward to are:

Seagull Books:

Villa Amalia, Pascal Quignard
Eulogy for the Living, Christa Wolf (trans. Katy Derbyshire)
The Great Fall, Peter Handke (trans. Krishna Winston)
Monk’s Eye, Cees Nooteboom (trans. David Colmer)
Lions, Hans Blumberg (trans. Kári Driscoll)
Requiem for Ernst Jandl,  Friederike Mayröcker (trans. Rosalyn Theobald)

NYRB Classics:

The Juniper Tree, Barbara Comyns
Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Döblin (trans. Michael Hofmann)
Kolyma Stories, Varlam Shalamov (trans. Donald Rayfield)
The Seventh Cross, Anna Seghers (trans. Margot Bettauer Dembo)
Anniversaries, Uwe Johnson (trans. Damion Searls)

Yale University Press:

Packing my Library, Alberto Manguel
A Little History of Archaeology, Brian Fagan
Journeying, Claudio Magris (trans. Anne Milano Appel)

I am also looking forward to more publications from Fitzcarraldo Editions, New Directions, Archipelago Press, Ugly Duckling Presse, Persephone Books (whose bookshop I hope to visit in the spring) and the Cahier Series. I’ve also heard that new books by Kate Zambreno and Rachel Cusk will be coming out later in 2018 and I am eager to read new titles by both of these women.

While I am waiting for the books listed above to be published, I will dip into German and British classics which I have loved reading over the last year. Here is what I have sitting on my shelf awaiting my attention in 2018:

German Literature:

Hyperion, Holderlin (trans. Ross Benjamin)
The Bachelors, Adalbert Stifter (trans. David Bryer)
The Lighted Windows, Heimito von Doderer (trans. John S. Barrett)
brütt, or The Sighing Gardens, Friederike Mayröcker (trans. Roslyn Theobald)
On Tangled Paths, Theodor Fontane (trans. Peter James Bowman)

British Literature:

Marriage, Susan Ferrier
The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf (I’d also like to continue reading her volumes of essays and diaries)
To the Wedding and G., John Berger
Pilgrimage, Vols. 3 and 4, Dorothy Richardson

Russian Literature:

I was disappointed this year not to get around to this stack of Russian literature in translation books as well as Russian history books I have sitting on my shelves—

Gulag Letters, Arsenii Formakov (ed. Elizabeth D. Johnson)
Found Life, Lina Goralik
City Folk and Country Folk, Sofia Khvoshchinskaya (trans. Nora Seligman Favorov)
Sentimental Tales, Mikhail Zoshchenko (trans. Boris Dralyuk)
October, China Mieville

(I’ve toyed with the idea of starting War and Peace as well, but who knows where my literary moods will take me)

And for some Non-fiction:

I am very eager to read more George Steiner: Errata, The Poetry of Thought and Grammars of Creation are all on my TBR piles.
I am teaching a Vergil/Caesar class and an Ovid (Metamorphoses) class in the spring and in preparation for these authors I would like to read some of Gian Biaggio Conte’s books, especially Latin Literature: A History and Stealing the Club from Hercules: On Imitation in Latin Poetry.

I know, this list seems impossible, ridiculous, all over the place. But who knows what rabbit holes I will fall down, or where my journey will take me. All I can say for sure is that 2018, much like 2017, will be filled with great books and interactions with other wonderful readers. Happy New Year!

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Filed under British Literature, Cahier Series, German Literature, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books, Nonfiction, Seagull Books, Virginia Woolf