Saturday, February 28, 2009

Project 1929: "The True Heart"

Sylvia Townsend Warner, The True Heart. Originally published by Chatto & Windus, 1929. Reprinted by Virago Modern Classics.

The True Heart, as Sylvia Townsend Warner reveals in her very brief introduction to the Virago reprint, is based on the story of Eros and Psyche as told in Apuleius's The Golden Ass. The story in Apuleius is a folktale embedded in the larger narrative, a tale about the love of a beautiful mortal girl, Psyche, for the immortal Eros (Cupid), and about the quest she must undergo before she can be united with her love. Warner's veiled retelling is set in Victorian England, in the year 1873. Sukey Bond (Psyche) is a poor orphan who goes into service as a maid for a farm family in the Essex marshes, where she falls in love with Eric (Eros), the "idiot" son whom Mrs. Seaborn (Venus) has sent away to live on the farm. When Sukey's love for Eric is revealed, Mrs. Seaborn arrives to take him home, and Sukey begins her long journey to find him again—a journey that takes her to Buckingham Palace and an audience with Queen Victoria.

The novel is a sophisticated fairy tale. The narrative often shifts abruptly from place to place, slows down or fast-forwards with dizzying speed. The beautiful and deeply textured descriptions and the odd encounters give the novel a fantastic, dream-like quality. Sukey, the main character, heightens this odd feeling of unreality. She is innocent, but determined. She moves through life as through a dream, her innocence insulating her from the facts of life while giving her a childish faith in the impossible.

According to Gay Wachman, in the book Lesbian Empire: Radical Crosswriting in the Twenties, the novel should be read in the context of the eugenics movement in early twentieth-century Britain. Among some of the upper class, the sexuality of the lower classes, of non-white races, of the mentally handicapped was suspect: the supposed promiscuity of those groups had to be controlled, the eugenicists believed, by sterilization if necessary. The love between Sukey and Eric, Wachman argues, needs to be seen in this context. The attitude is reflected in a conversation that takes place in Mrs. Seaborn's kitchen when Sukey, believing she's pregnant, comes looking for Eric:
"Fancy an idiot getting a girl that way," remarked the housemaid, filling her mouth with currants. "I shouldn't have thought it hardly possible."

"Oh, they're wonderful at it. Like the blacks..."
Ironically, Sukey is so innocent that she thinks merely kissing Eric has made her pregnant.

The removal of Eric from the farm is precipitated by an interesting event. The farmer's son has become engaged to Prudence, the farm's former serving girl. To celebrate the engagement, Sukey is asked to slaughter a cock for dinner. Sukey tries to get Eric to do it for her, but he won't. When she chops off the cock's head, Eric falls into a fit. This crucial episode certainly makes sense in the context of eugenics and the movement for sterilization of the "feebleminded."

At another farmhouse where Sukey finds work as a maid, she sees on the wall an engraving titled "The True Secret of England's Greatness." It shows Queen Victoria presenting a Bible to a dark-skinned subject. Sukey imagines herself in the subject's place, kneeling before the Queen. When Sukey finally has her audience with the Queen, what strikes Sukey (and the reader) is not Queen Victoria's imperial majesty, but her sorrow. She is a widow sorrowing for her lost love, a mother sorrowing over a wayward son.

In the end, the novel is about the power and the strange unreality of romantic love. Romantic love is a dream from which one wakes to the realities of marriage and a life together, to a different kind of love.
I love. The maiden can speak thus boldly, and only the maiden, whose love is still her own to proclaim, an intensity cloistered in its own fire, an inviolate astonishment. Already it seemed curious to her, and slightly embarrassing, that she should have spoken so. Never again would her lips utter such brazen boasting. She would say instead: I never saw such a child for tumbles; Your father always was a one for gooseberry tart; My mind misgives me that she is sickening for something; Don't forget to put on a clean shirt; Wasn't there something else I meant to order from the grocer?
The weird unreality of the novel, the slight "feeblemindedness" of the two lovers, may after all be no more than the unreality and feeblemindedness of all young love, which is succeeded by a deeper reality and an entirely new kind of living joy.

Current Reading/Future Reviews:
James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States)
Olivia Manning, School for Love (New York Review Books Classics)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Poplar Field

In Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, Mr. Rushworth takes the Bertrams, Crawfords, and Fanny Price to visit his magnificent country home, Sotherton, for which he has various plans of improvement. One thing that has to go, he says, is the long, tree-lined avenue leading up to the house. Hearing of the plan to cut down the trees, Fanny murmurs to Edmund: "Cut down an avenue! What a pity! Does not it make you think of Cowper? 'Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited.'" Fanny is old-fashioned, and likes things—landscapes, morals, relationships—to remain in their "old state." Unfortunately for Fanny, things don't remain as one imagines or remembers them to be. Perhaps readers are disappointed with Mansfield Park (a favorite of mine, but of almost no one else) because it's a novel about disappointment—about the failure of people and places to live up to one's expectations.

I've written a little about this subject in my guest blogger post on AustenBlog back in June 2007. I'll probably have more to say on Thursday evening, April 16, 2009, when I will present an illustrated talk at the Northfield Public Library, titled "Finding Jane: A Tour of Some English Literary Places."

The line Fanny quotes is from Cowper's long poem The Task. Here's a shorter poem on the same theme.

William Cowper
The Poplar-Field

THE poplars are fell'd, farewell to the shade
And the whispering sound of the cool colonnade,
The winds play no longer, and sing in the leaves,
Nor Ouse on his bosom their image receives.

Twelve years have elaps'd since I first took a view
Of my favourite field and the bank where they grew,
And now in the grass behold they are laid,
And the tree is my seat that once lent me a shade.

The blackbird has fled to another retreat
Where the hazels afford him a screen from the heat,
And the scene where his melody charm'd me before,
Resounds with his sweet-flowing ditty no more.

My fugitive years are all hasting away,
And I must ere long lie as lowly as they,
With a turf on my breast, and a stone at my head,
Ere another such grove shall arise in its stead.

'Tis a sight to engage me, if any thing can,
To muse on the perishing pleasures of man;
Though his life be a dream, his enjoyments, I see,
Have a being less durable even than he.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


On his fifty-second birthday, Abraham Lincoln was in Cincinnati, Ohio, en route to Washington, D.C., for his inauguration at the 16th President of the United States. In Cincinnati, he was asked to address an audience of German immigrants. In his brief remarks, Lincoln told his audience:
I hold that while man exists, it is his duty to improve not only his own condition, but to assist in ameliorating mankind; and therefore, without entering upon the details of the question, I will simply say, that I am for those means which will give the greatest good to the greatest number.
"The greatest good to the greatest number." This is the basic principle of utilitarianism, the philosophical theory associated most closely with John Stuart Mill (whose book Utilitarianism was published in 1861). Both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin absorbed the utilitarian idea of maximizing the good. Both men believed in moral progress that would result in increased goodness; both men believed in the process of "amelioration."

For Darwin, amelioration was a biological process first and foremost: it was a process by which advantageous traits were selected and passed along, allowing the improved organism to survive and to thrive. Natural selection is the mechanism for "ameliorating mankind"—not only on a purely biological level, but on a moral level as well. In The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin writes:
The moral nature of man has reached its present standard, partly through the advancement of his reasoning powers and consequently of a just public opinion, but especially from his sympathies having been rendered more tender and widely diffused through the effects of habit, example, instruction, and reflection. It is not improbable that after long practice virtuous tendencies may be inherited... [T]he first foundation or origin of the moral sense lies in the social instincts, including sympathy; and these instincts no doubt were primarily gained, as in the case of the lower animals, through natural selection.
Darwin concluded that morals, like physical organisms, evolved. It's interesting to note that even one of Darwin's critics could write in a review of The Origin of Species: "We cannot help saying that piety must be fastidious indeed that objects to a theory the tendency of which is to show that all organic beings, man included, are in a perpetual progress of amelioration..." Darwin demonstrated that amelioration was more than an article of faith. It was a fact of life.

Both Darwin and Lincoln are representative nineteenth-century men in their belief in the progress of humankind toward something better: toward greater goodness, toward greater biological fitness, toward a greater adherence to our inherited ideals. Darwin was remarkable in finding a biological basis for this faith in human amelioration; Lincoln was remarkable in putting it into political practice and in giving it such enduring expression. Both men believed strongly in the ties of sympathy—the "bonds of affection," as Lincoln put it—that bind humans together. Both men believed that these bonds were inherited, and strengthened, and passed on. Both men looked back at our lowly origins, and marveled at what we had become, and what we were capable of becoming.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

New Shower

Our bathroom remodeling. At the end of the demolition phase, and the finished product. Excellent work by Charlie Legare (Legare Construction), Paul's Plumbing, Innovative Surfaces, and Polzin Glass.

Friday, February 6, 2009

"Nothing, Like Something, Happens Anywhere"

Among the survivors of the Coventry blitz on November 14, 1940 were the city treasurer, Sydney Larkin, and his wife Eva. Two days before the air raid, Mr. Larkin received a letter from his son, Philip, who had just matriculated at St. John's College, Oxford. Young Larkin was running low on cash. The future librarian was spending it all on books.

Years later, Philip Larkin—sitting in a train bound for somewhere else—pulled into the Coventry train station—
I remember, I remember

Coming up England by a different line
For once, early in the cold new year,
We stopped, and watching men with number-plates
Sprint down the platform to familiar gates,
'Why, Coventry!' I exclaimed. 'I was born here.'

I leant far out, and squinnied for a sign
That this was still the town that had been 'mine'
So long, but found I wasn't even clear
Which side was which. From where those cycle-crates
Were standing, had we annually departed

For all those family hols?... A whistle went:
Things moved. I sat back, staring at my boots.
'Was that,' my friend smiled, 'where you "have your roots"?'
No, only where my childhood was unspent,
I wanted to retort, just where I started:

By now I've got the whole place clearly charted.
Our garden, first: where I did not invent
Blinding theologies of flowers and fruits,
And wasn't spoken to by an old hat.
And here we have that splendid family

I never ran to when I got depressed,
The boys all biceps and the girls all chest,
Their comic Ford, their farm where I could be
'Really myself'. I'll show you, come to that,
The bracken where I never trembling sat,

Determined to go through with it; where she
Lay back, and 'all became a burning mist'.
And, in those offices, my doggerel
Was not set up in blunt ten-point, nor read
By a distinguished cousin of the mayor,

Who didn't call and tell my father There
Before us, had we the gift to see ahead—
'You look as if you wished the place in Hell,'
My friend said, 'judging from your face.' 'Oh well,
I suppose it's not the place's fault,' I said.

'Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.'
Today—I saw it there myself, setting out by train from Coventry for a holiday in the Lake District—the first stanza of Larkin's poem, inscribed on a plaque, hangs from one of the concrete pillars in the Coventry train station.

The Coventry that Larkin knew as a child was destroyed almost as soon as he left. What remains is a sense, not of loss, but of nothingness. What the poem commemorates about Larkin's childhood is what didn't happen. Nothing happened. What remains is the poem: an odd little chronicle of non-events that happened—or, rather, didn't happen—in a place that no longer exists.

The poem reminds me, in more ways than one, of a genuinely nostalgic poem about a brief stop during a train journey. The poem was written in 1914, on the eve of World War I, by Edward Thomas, an English poet who would die in that war—

Yes, I remember Adlestrop –
The name because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontendly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop – only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
Thomas's lovely and tender little poem, like Larkin's cynical one, is touched with a sense of absence: "No one left and no one came."

My niece and nephew in the Adlestop bus shelter, January 2007. Between them is Edward Thomas's poem.

The train station in Adlestrop, in the Cotswolds, is long gone. But, like the first stanza of Larkin's poem, Thomas's poem is inscribed on a plaque and publicly displayed: in Adlestrop's bus shelter, on a bench underneath the sign salvaged from the old station. "Adlestrop—only the name." As with Larkin's poem, Thomas's poem becomes, in a sense, the thing that isn't there.

I had this feeling often in England, that there were two Englands: a place where I walked and drank ale and bought sausages and endured ridicule for my ginger hair, and a place that for centuries had been turning into words.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Reading Journal: "Coventry"

Helen Humphreys , Coventry. W.W. Norton 2009. 177 pp. $23.95.

Helen Humphrey's new novel, Coventry, begins as the fire-watchers stand guard on the roof of old Coventry Cathedral on the night of November 14, 1940. One of the watchers is Harriet Marsh, a woman in her forties whose husband died at Ypres in the First World War. From the marvelously evocative first scene on the cathedral roof, the narrative returns to the day in 1914 when Harriet's husband left for the war. On the way home from seeing her husband off at the station, Harriet walks past the cathedral, where she meets another young woman, Maeve, who is sketching the cathedral spire:
Harriet looks at the detail on the church spire, detail she has never noticed herself. Each piece of stone has been drawn by Maeve as either shadow or light. Her talent fills Harriet with wonder and admiration. The church looks more alive in the drawing than in reality.
Although more momentous events will follow, including the destruction of Coventry, this is for me the defining moment in the novel. Like Maeve, Helen Humphreys is able to bring her story alive with a few well-placed strokes, through the interplay of shadow and light. Like Harriet, Humphreys reflects on the ability of art to bring things alive, to focus our attention on the small things we've never noticed, to transmute history and loss into things we can live with.

Coventry Cathedral

Humphreys manages skillfully and poetically to combine reflection with a fast-paced narrative of the horrors of the night of November 14, when a German bombing raid reduced Coventry to ruins. It's a novel about ruins—the ruins of Ypres after the first war, the ruins of Coventry in the second—and about how those ruins are incorporated into the life that comes after. Coventry Cathedral is itself the most powerful symbol of this: the ruins of the medieval cathedral are incorporated into the new cathedral, ruin and redemption side by side.

On Good Friday 2007, I sat in Coventry Cathedral and listened to the choir—my wife in the alto section—sing Herbert Howells' stunning motet "Take Him, Earth, For Cherishing." The text, from the 4th century, begins:
Take him, earth, for cherishing,
to thy tender breast receive him.
Body of a man I bring thee,
noble even in its ruin.

Once was this a spirit's dwelling,
by the breath of God created...
The motet was originally written for the memorial service of President John F. Kennedy, but its deep feeling comes from Howells' personal grief after the death of his son. Personal and public grief are movingly interfused in the piece, and that deep feeling filled Coventry Cathedral on Good Friday—the sense that we are part of each other's loss, and part of each other's hope of redemption. We mourn, and we carry on together.

In her acknowledgments, Humphreys notes that her "descriptions of the burning city are based on the accounts of the citizens of Coventry, as well as on eyewitness accounts of the bombing of Baghdad." In one sense, Coventry resonates with contemporary events, particularly 9/11, and the intense blending of public and private grief and horror those events have brought about. Since 9/11, there seems to have been an increase in post-apocalyptic narratives like Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Coventry takes us through an apocalypse, but ultimately it isn't about the horror of destruction, but about the power of creation. It's about what we remember, and about what we build from those pieces.

Note: I received my complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Not Fade Away

Today is the 50th anniversary of "The Day the Music Died." On February 3, 1959, a plan crashed near Clear Lake, Iowa, taking the lives of the pilot and the three musicians on board: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. Here's a link to a blog post from Paste Magazine: "The Day the Music Was Re-Born: 17 Tracks in Memory of Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, and the Big Bopper."

Sunday, February 1, 2009

"Say It Plain"

Two great American poets share a birthday today: Langston Hughes (born in 1902) and Galway Kinnell (born in 1927). Galway Kinnell's Mortal Acts Mortal Words (1980) has long been one of my favorite books of poetry. Here are links to two of the most memorable poems from that book: "After Making Love We Hear Footsteps" and "St. Francis and the Sow."

And here is a link to Langston Hughes' "Let America Be America Again." Or you can hear poet Nikki Giovanni reading the poem last November, a week after the election of President Barack Obama. The poem is about the promise and the failure of America, about the American dream and the waking reality of injustice and inequality, about the continuing struggle of Americans to live up to their founding ideals. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. quoted Hughes' poem in the April 1967 speech in which he declared his opposition to the war in Vietnam. Elizabeth Alexander echoed it again when she said, in her inaugural poem, "Say it plain: that many have died for this day." Here are the words of Langston Hughes:
O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .