It’s Just a Story

 “The Rocky Road to Dublin”

The Chieftains and The Rolling Stones

“Sweet Dream (Are Made of This)”

Eurhythmics

“All the Roadrunning”

Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris

   

It’s Just a Story

   

   

Caricature of Albert Brasseur in “Le Rire”

Sem

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sem_Brasseur_Le_Rire_1902.jpg

   

  

In an interview that first appeared in The New York Review of Books, “Everyman His Own Eckermann,” Edmund Wilson discussed his views on art, music, and literature. Though known mostly as a literary critic, he spent most of his time talking about art, a bit less time talking about music and hardly talked about literature at all. The interview is also interesting because Wilson was both the “interviewee” and the interviewer. In this respect it is something of a Plato-esque dialogue on art and, like Socrates, he rarely asks a question he does not already have an answer for, even when protesting his inability to provide an answer. And though he does not say much about literature, what he says about art and music comes back to what he appreciates in literature, the stories that are told. He enjoys opera because it tells a story, all other forms of music he only listens to on records, not in the theater or the concert hall. He does not care much for the work of Picasso, not because it isn’t well executed, but because it only succeeds at being clever. The drawing above is by one of Wilson’s favorite artists, a caricaturist who called himself Sem, the Hirschfeld of his day, or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say Hirschfeld was the Sem of his day. 

  

   

   

Liza Minnelli

Al Hirschfeld

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hirschfeld%27s_one-line_drawing_of_Liza_Minnelli.jpg

   

  

Both the Hirschfeld and Sem caricatures capture their subjects doing what they do best in a way that clearly and simply captures the essence of their subjects. Like Hirschfeld many, perhaps most, of Sem’s caricatures were of artists, mostly actors, writers, and musicians; artists associated with theater and the performing arts of one kind or another. Both artists relied on a simplicity of line and expression to capture their subjects. Looking at the Sem drawing suggests a kind of continuity in the arts, as Brasseur’s hat and coat and whip bring Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” to mind; they are not identical but there is a threadbare quality to the costume that is not unlike that of Chaplin’s tramp. And to get back to what Wilson admires about Sem (and what I admire about Hirschfeld) they are spare and simple drawings that tell stories. Like Shakespeare’s theater, the artists’ stage is a bare stage with no more in the way of setting and furniture than is absolutely necessary. As Poe suggests when writing about the short story, there is nothing extra, nothing that is not absolutely necessary for conveying their effect; the expression on each face and the contour of each body. The viewer’s imagination does the rest.

   

Some might not consider these artists as “great,” as “museum” quality, but their work involves the viewer and provokes an emotional response. Unlike Liza Minnelli, I do not know who Albert Brasseur is (I have discovered that, like Minnelli, he was active in the musical theater). But the caricature is evocative. It may be that the story I see in the picture is not the same story Sem’s original audience would have seen, they are unlikely to make my connection to Chaplin’s persona, and it is not likely that Brasseur was as intimately connected with this character as Chaplin was with the tramp. But this is often how art and story work; we see them in the light of our own time, our own personal history, and our own tastes and interests. Perhaps only I see Chaplin in this drawing. What others see may be colored by their experiences. There is also an ephemeral quality to the work of both artists, they are very topical, but Sem’s work, transient though it may be, has survived for a hundred years, perhaps because, though we may not know who his subjects were, there is a wittiness to their representation that piques our interest or makes us laugh or in some other way makes us care about them. But then, what is it in any story that causes it to live (and not all do) long after the circumstances of their creation have been forgotten. 

   

The songs at the beginning are about roads that are rocky or arduous; they are also about dreams, sweet or otherwise. These are also at the heart of many stories, there is often a dream or an aspiration; there is always a journey to be made that involves difficulty and conflict. It is often the nature of the dream and the conflict that hold our interest. Brasseur’s road looks like it has been a rocky one but he also appears to be a man with a dream and aspirations. These are also a part of what draws us to him. I like to imagine that Ms. Minnelli is singing Chaplain’s song “Smile”: “Smile though your heart is aching / Smile even though it’s breaking. / When there are clouds in the sky / You’ll get by.” This, too, is an important aspect of those stories that survive.

   

  

   

Bagpipe Player

Hendrick ter Brugghen

http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/art-object-page.144298.html

   

  

The paintings above and below tell different stories. They are portraits, not caricatures, of men engaged in something serious, at least from their point of view. Being Scottish I take delight in the picture of the bagpipe and can imagine its sound. The musician playing the bagpipe evokes a story as well. I cannot tell if that is all shadow on his shoulder and not also a bit of dirt or a bruise. The bagpipe is a martial instrument and so it would not be surprising if the player has been involved in conflict. Even if the shoulder is not bruised the shirt does seem a bit disheveled. He seems to enjoy the music he is making, whatever the occasion for the music making.

   

The old man, on the other hand, appears to be more world weary, more troubled. I cannot know what it is that troubles him, perhaps it is only his advancing years, but the muscles and veins on the neck are tense and the eyes are troubled. He looks determined, though I do not think he looks hopeful. But I empathize with him and I want to help him, though I do not know how. Stories do not always offer answers and often it is not a quest for answers that draws us to stories, but a desire to discover what it means to be fully human and part of being fully human is learning how to comfort those we cannot help, at least not in the way they need to be helped. Job’s friends may not have been able to change Job’s circumstances, but they could have offered him solace and comfort instead of judgment and because they didn’t we judge them and wonder how genuine was their friendship. 

  

   

   

Head of an Old Man

Abraham Bloemaert

http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/art-object-page.133023.html

   

  

Wilson, in talking about the artist Callot, mentions the Commedia dell’arte, an early form of Italian theater that is with us to this day, and has many of its antecedents in Plautus and the theater of Rome. Also, as in the painting below, the Commedia was often a kind of “street” theater that appealed to the masses, to the “simple folk” who were rarely as simple as some would have us believe. The Commedia had a cast of stock characters and we as the audience could always tell who was who based on their costumes, their masks, and their antics. There is a language of theater, a language of performance. Ben Jonson in his play Volpone, and many of his other plays, borrowed heavily from the Commedia. Moliere, in his comedies, used characters who had their origins in the Commedia as well. Tartuffe, The Miser, The Imaginary Invalid are all characters lifted from this ancient theatrical tradition. The plays are still very funny because the character traits being mocked are all caricatures of personality types we recognize. We are not likely to know anyone who possess these traits to the degree the characters in these plays possess them, it is not likely that anyone has ever possessed these traits to this extreme. They are exaggerations that nonetheless capture something real about how we as humans are corrupted by these traits; how to some degree we all possess these traits and in laughing at the antics on stage we are laughing at ourselves. 

  

   

   

Commedia dell’arte

Karel Dujardin

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:KDujardinsCommedia.jpg

   

  

Stories often help us to see ourselves as we are and to not take ourselves too seriously. Malvolio, in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is modeled on the same character type as Tartuffe (though he lacks Tartuffe’s intelligence or resourcefulness, but on the other hand Tartuffe does not have Malvolio’s sincerity). We have all known people to whom we wanted to say, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” And if we are honest with ourselves there have been moments in our lives when those around us, probably wanted to say the same to us. Some look askance at others for being too judgmental and some at others who are unwilling to make judgments. It is human to be critical of those that do not adhere to our “code,” whatever our “code” is.

   

Marin Scorsese in an article for The New York Review of Books talks about the language of film, “The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema.” He talks about the environment of film, at least of film viewed as it ought to be viewed. Films need to be seen in a dark room surrounded by strangers (many of whom you might avoid were you to encounter them on the street). For me the clicking sound of the projector is also an important part of the experience. Just as the Commedia had its stock characters, so also cinema has its stock characters. At its simplest we know the good guys because they wear white hats. But in film, the hard-nosed detective, no matter who plays him, is a type of character, the cowboy, whether played by John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Clint Eastwood, or Steve McQueen is a character type. Both the cowboy and the detective have an “unsavory” veneer about them that is contradicted by their actions, or at least times it is. Black and white as a film “genre” is also a significant part of my film experience. I am used to seeing movies in black and white, even movies that were originally made in color, like, for instance, Invaders from Mars. I saw this film, and many others, every night for a week when it played on a television program called Million Dollar Movie. This program played the same film every night for a week. But television when I was a child was all black and white and I was amazed when I discovered, fairly recently, Invaders from Mars was original shot in color. 

   

  

   

Scene from The Maltese Falcon

John Huston/Warner Brothers

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GutmanCairoMaltFalc1941Trailer.jpg

   

   

But many films were originally shot in black and white because the lack of color helped create an atmosphere, especially in “film noir” movies like The Big Sleep or Laura. Tension and mystery were enhanced by the lack of color, as was the seediness of many of the characters and situations. These films may have been originally shot in black and white for budgetary reasons, but the directors of these films took a limitation and made it into a strength. I remember seeing Brideshead Revisited for the first time on a black and white television set. Because I didn’t know any better I thought the maker of the series was brilliant in choosing to shoot the film in Black and White because it helped capture for me the essence of the 1920’s; it had a newsreel quality to it that enhanced the “feeling” of the times in which the story was set. It was only later that I realized the filmmaker was not as brilliant as I had thought; the series was actually shot in color and I just did not have a color set on which to see it. But again, our experience colors our interpretations and understandings of the stories we experience. 

     

Spider-Man, The Lion King and life on the creative edge

Julie Taymor

TED Talk

   

  

In the video Julie Taymor talks about how she creates theater and films. Spectacle plays a large part in what she tries to do, but so does simplicity. She talks about how, when she was designing the Broadway musical (not the film) The Lion King she began much the same way Hirschfeld and Sem began, with simple lines, what she calls ideograms that capture the essence of character. Her productions, especially her last that did not go that well, are very complex, they attempt to do things not tried before, they take great risks. It can be debated as to whether or not the finished product was worth the risk, but she has done some remarkable things in film and on stage. She tells at the beginning of her talk of witnessing a religious ceremony. She was in darkness and those performing the ceremony were unaware of their “audience.” In fact as marvelous as the spectacle of their dance, costumes, and of the setting for their performance was they were not performing for anyone; their only audience was, as far as they knew, God. 

   

Taymor believes that there is a religious quality to theater and story telling. The origins of the theater are religious, the Athenian Greeks used theater to communicate their myths and reinforce in the minds of the people the importance of the gods and the gods care for the universe. When actors came on stage wearing a mask the audience knew immediately who the actors were portraying because they saw the same faces on statues everyday as they walked about town. Rabelais in “The Abbey of Theleme” section of Pantagruel has the walls of the abbey painted with pictures that told all the important stories; that taught all the important lessons. This is not an unusual feature in Renaissance utopias, paintings in public spaces that taught the young and the illiterate the values of the utopic culture. A popular book of the time, for those that could afford such things, were “books of hours” that people would use to meditate upon during “hours” of prayer (the medieval day was divided into “canonical hours,” compline, vespers, matins for example). On one page would be the text of a gospel or a psalm and on the facing page an illustration, an illumination, that told in pictures the story of the text. The arts, literature, painting, music, and theater all had their origins in a kind of education that passes along the cultural traditions in a way that is accessible to all and understood by all.

   

   

   

“Folio 31 verso from a Book of Hours (British Library, Royal 2 B XV), the Arrest of Christ”

Anonymous

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:BLRoyal2BXVFol031vArrestChrist.jpg

   

  

Peter Thonemann in his article “Seeing Straight” talks about architecture and how the buildings we design and live in are often suggestive of how we view the world and how we think the universe works. Early civilizations often built circular buildings, while later on square buildings became the design of choice. Thonemann suggests this is because the world as we observe it is circular; tree trunks, the sun and moon, the motion of the sun and moon; but ninety degree angles, that is squares and rectangles, are more functional as living and working spaces. I am not sure how much we can tell about a people based on their buildings, but I think we can tell something. What we make, the environments in which we choose to live, the stories that we tell, and how we choose to tell them all say something about us and about how we see ourselves. Are our living and working spaces an extension of our worship or are they places designed to bring us comfort? Can they be both?

   

There was an article in the online journal First Things, “Faith in Fiction,” that discusses the disappearance of faith from modern fiction. I am not entirely sure this is the case, but much, maybe most, of modern fiction seems to avoid faith. But I do not think this is entirely the case, because I think we all live by faith. We select a worldview, or perhaps our conscience does, that guides the judgments we make. These worldviews are ultimately un-provable; they begin with an article of faith, God exists, God doesn’t exist, science has the answer for every question (if not at the present moment, it will in time), we are born with a conscience, what we call conscience is the result of our upbringing. None of these assertions can be proved empirically, but we all have to start somewhere so we pick one. The stories a culture tells itself reveal the articles of faith that culture has embraced, even if that faith is one of “faithlessness.” But our “gods” may be replaced with other “gods” as time goes by, just as the Jupiter once replaced Zeus.

   

  

   

Venetian Fantasy with Santa Maria della Salute and the Dogana on an Island

Edward Lear

http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/collection-search-result.html?accession=2009.70.152&pageNumber=1

   

  

The painting is Venetian Fantasy. This suggests it captures a Venice that never existed, it is a fantasy, but it bears a close enough resemblance to the Venice we know, or at least that Edward Lear knew, to make the fantasy real. To those that do not share our faith it is a fantasy as others’ faith often appears as a fantasy to us. One thing story should help us with is determining what we are going to “bet our lives on,” because there are consequences attached to the beliefs we adopt; they dictate to us how our lives ought to be lived. Some think it is enough to live consistently with the choices we have made. Others think making the right choice is in itself critical, and those that think this way can often tell us what the right choice is. I believe in truth and that it is important to question everything with the belief that whatever is true can stand up to the scrutiny if it is true. 

   

Perhaps part of what characterizes the age is a fear of what we might find if we ask too many questions. There is a great temptation, not just in our age, but in every age, to seek comfort, to seek rest, to seek enjoyment and to evade the darkness, and often the easiest way to do this, at least in the short term, is to ignore unpleasant truths and difficult questions. To what degree is what we hunger for determined by the diet we are accustomed to and to what degree does what we hunger for challenge our conventions? I am not sure that stories can give us the answers we seek, but I do think stories encourage us to keep looking and to not be satisfied with easy solutions to difficult problems. The truth may often be simple, but it is never simplistic. 

   

  

   

The Artist Sketching at Mount Desert, Maine

Sanford Robinson Gifford

http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/art-object-page.138735.html

Impressions

Vincent

Don McLean

Country Life

Delaney and Bonnie

  

Impressions

  

  

Portrait of Patience Escalier

Vincent van Gogh

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh_086.jpg

  

There were a number of articles recently on poets. This is perhaps not surprising considering that April is National Poetry Month. There were articles on well known poets, W. H, Auden, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and John Keats (“National Poetry Month: W. H. Auden,” “Working Girl,” and “Poet of Loss”) The Auden article was really a weeklong celebration of the poet’s work. There were also articles on less well known poets, Edward Thomas and R. S. Thomas (“Chapter and Verse: The Unknown Prose of a Great Poet” and “RS Thomas: Serial Obsessive by M Wynn Thomas – review”). These poets, with the possible exception of Auden and Millay, were known largely for their poems on nature and on those that worked in the natural world. One of R. S. Thomas’ early poems focuses on a farmer (or perhaps a fictionalized accumulation of a number of local farmers) from the rural parish he served as an Anglican priest:

  

A Peasant

 

Iago Prytherch his name, though, be it allowed,

Just an ordinary man of the bald Welsh hills,

Who pens a few sheep in a gap of cloud.

Docking mangels, chipping the green skin

From the yellow bones with a half-witted grin

Of satisfaction, or churning the crude earth

To a stiff sea of clods that glint in the wind—

So are his days spent, his spittled mirth

Rarer than the sun that cracks the cheeks

Of the gaunt sky perhaps once in a week.

And then at night see him fixed in his chair

Motionless, except when he leans to gob in the fire.

There is something frightening in the vacancy of his mind.

His clothes, sour with years of sweat

And animal contact, shock the refined,

But affected, sense with their stark naturalness.

Yet this is your prototype, who, season by season

Against siege of rain and the wind’s attrition,

Preserves his stock, an impregnable fortress

Not to be stormed, even in death’s confusion.

Remember him, then, for he, too, is a winner of wars,

Enduring like a tree under the curious stars.

  

The poem celebrates the simplicity of the peasant’s life. It also celebrates those that work the land and live in communion with the land. The painting by Van Gogh captures a French peasant (a gardener and shepherd) who, according to Wikipedia, Van Gogh painted because the farmer’s features resembled those of his father. There is a similarity of feeling between the landscapes of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters like Van Gogh and the poems of poets whose lyrics revolve around the natural world, the woods and the wilds, like R. S. Thomas’. 

  

Just as the paintings capture the painters’ impressions of the land rather than a photographic representation of the land, so also do these poets capture the impressions the land makes upon them more than the actual appearance of the land. The song by Don McLean celebrates these features, this Romantic view of nature, in the paintings of Vincent van Gogh. The song by Delaney and Bonnie captures also captures a romantic view of nature and life in the country, though perhaps this romanticized view is some distance from the reality as captured in the R. S. Thomas poem. 

 

  

A wooded river landscape with a man and his dog by a waterfall, ruins beyond

George Barrett, Sr.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Circle_of_George_Barrett_-_A_wooded_river_landscape_with_a_man_and_his_dog_by_a_waterfall,_ruins_beyond.jpg

  

The paintings above and below are Romantic era paintings (or just before) that, though they are more realistic than those of the Impressionists, capture the wilderness in ways that evoke the poets of that era. In the painting above the ruin is evocative of Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey.” The ruin in the painting suggests Nature’s power and its ability to reclaim its own as that which man has built is slowly broken down into its natural elements. What is often overlooked in these poems and paintings are the more dangerous aspects of this power nature has over us and the world in which we live. Aside from what may lurk in these woods there is also the dangers of the terrain itself. And though the likelihood of getting lost in the woods has diminished over time, other dangers such as bogs and rough water are still a threat. Wordsworth in one section of The Prelude addresses this ambivalence between nature’s beauty and nature’s dangerous power:

  

I fixed my view

Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,

The horizon’s utmost boundary; for above

Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.

She was an elfin pinnace;’ lustily

I dipped my oars into the silent lake,

And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat 

Went heaving through the water like a swan; 

When, from behind that craggy steep till then 

The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge, 

As if with voluntary power instinct 

Upreared its bead. I struck and struck again, 

And growing still in stature the grim shape 

Towered up between me and the stars, and still, 

For so it seemed, with purpose of its own 

And measured motion like a living thing, 

Strode after me.  

   

What at first, in its beauty, filled the young poet with awe (he is describing a childhood experience) suddenly fills him with fear. It is for Wordsworth a transformational experience. In reflecting on this event he begins to form an attitude towards nature that recognizes both its sublime beauty and its great power. 

   

Where the painting above hints at the power of nature that Wordsworth suggests, the painting below by Gainsborough captures the more benign aspects of nature, its pleasant beauty and the rustics going about their business. The gathering clouds may suggest the ability of nature to interrupt our plans for leisure and recreation, but it is in the distance and far removed and more of an inconvenience than a threat.

   

  

Landscape with the Village Cornard

Thomas Gainsborough

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thomas_Gainsborough_009.jpg

  

Unlike the Impressionists, the “impressions” in these paintings come through the choice of subject and not as much in the style in which that subject is painted. Gainsborough and Barrett are realistic painters, they are trying to capture a more “photographic” kind of image, but the subjects of these paintings communicate attitudes, “impressions” of the natural world. It may even be that the scenes themselves never existed as they are painted but that they were largely composed in the imagination of the painters. Where the Impressionists painted what they saw but did not paint what they saw as they saw it, these painters paint what they do not see, but paint it as it would look if they had seen it. 

  

  

The Old Mill

Vincent van Gogh

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vincent_van_Gogh_(1853-1890)_-_The_Old_Mill_(1888).jpg

  

The paintings above and below are both of “old mills.” Both painters are Dutchmen separated by about two hundred years of history. Both paintings capture an attitude toward the natural world. The brush strokes in the Van Gogh painting seem to suggest that nature is in motion, that it is visibly alive. In the Rembrandt painting the dirt, the stones, and the trees are sedentary and firmly planted in place, but the clouds and the water also suggest a world in motion. Both paintings depict people going about their business. Van Gogh’s mill looks to be a different kind of mill from Rembrandt’s and it may be from a different country as well. Van Gogh’s mill may be like the one Edward Thomas writes of in his poem “The Mill Water:”

  

The Mill-Water

  

ONLY the sound remains

Of the old mill;

Gone is the wheel;

On the prone roof and walls the nettle reigns.

 

Water that toils no more

Dangles white locks

And, falling, mocks

The music of the mill-wheel’s busy roar.

 

Pretty to see, by day

Its sound is naught

Compared with thought

And talk and noise of labour and of play.

 

Night makes the difference.

In calm moonlight,

Gloom infinite,

The sound comes surging in upon the sense:

 

Solitude, company,–

When it is night,–

Grief or delight

By it must haunted or concluded be.

 

Often the silentness

Has but this one

Companion;

Wherever one creeps in the other is:

 

Sometimes a thought is drowned

By it, sometimes

Out of it climbs;

All thoughts begin or end upon this sound,

 

Only the idle foam

Of water falling

Changelessly calling,

Where once men had a work-place and a home.

   

The poem meditates on an old mill as a ruin, a building that no longer serves the purpose for which it was created and the natural world, Nature, mocks the building as the sound of the rushing water draws our attention to the silence of the old mill’s machinery. Nature lives on and is slowly dismantling that which man has created; Nature is still at work while man’s machinery is silent and, in the words of Coleridge, “the sole unbusy thing.” 

  

  

The Mill

Rembrandt van Rijn

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Mill-1645_1648-Rembrandt_van_Rijn.jpg

  

Edward Taylor began as a writer of prose, and was best known in his lifetime for his books and essays on the English landscape. After reading some of Taylor’s prose Robert Frost encouraged Taylor to write poetry (Taylor dedicated his first book of poems to Frost). Today Taylor is better known for his poetry than he is for his prose, but he said that much of his poetry was adapted from his prose depictions of the English landscape. I do not know if the “The Mill Water” began as a prose piece or not, but it is not difficult to imagine that it might have. Thomas, like other poets of his generation, was killed in the First World War. Unlike the other war poets, though, none of his poems are about the war; they focus on the natural world, most often, ironically, on the peace and serenity of the natural world.

  

  

The Park at Petworth House

J. M. W. Turner

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Joseph_Mallord_William_Turner_015.jpg

  

The painting by Turner is of the deer park attached to a country manor house, Petworth House. It captures the world of the deer park in its natural beauty at sunset (it might be sunrise, but to me it “feels” like I am looking west, though of course it could just as easily be east). Though the focus of the painting is on a man made landscape there is nothing in the painting to identify it as man made and it could easily be mistaken for a “picturesque” scene from nature. Ben Jonson in his poem “To Penshurst” on the other hand focuses on the relationship between the natural world and the world that man has created:

  

Thou art not, Penshurst, built to envious show,

Of touch or marble; nor canst boast a row

Of polished pillars, or a roof of gold;

Thou hast no lantern, whereof tales are told,

Or stair, or courts; but stand’st an ancient pile,

And, these grudged at, art reverenced the while.

Thou joy’st in better marks, of soil, of air,

Of wood, of water; therein thou art fair.

Thou hast thy walks for health, as well as sport;

Thy mount, to which the dryads do resort,

Where Pan and Bacchus their high feasts have made,

Beneath the broad beech and the chestnut shade;

That taller tree, which of a nut was set

At his great birth where all the Muses met.

There in the writhèd bark are cut the names

Of many a sylvan, taken with his flames;

And thence the ruddy satyrs oft provoke

The lighter fauns to reach thy Lady’s Oak.

Thy copse too, named of Gamage, thou hast there,

That never fails to serve thee seasoned deer

When thou wouldst feast or exercise thy friends.

The lower land, that to the river bends,

Thy sheep, thy bullocks, kine, and calves do feed;

The middle grounds thy mares and horses breed.

  

There is the “ancient pile” and the “walks for health, as well as sport.” But there is also the deer, sheep, and the river, though there is the suggestion that the natural world has been made to conform to the will of man. In Turner’s painting the opposite seems to be suggested, that the world of man has been made to conform to the will of Nature. Jonson is a part of the Renaissance world, in Turner, on the other hand, we see early hints of what would become the Impressionist style of painting and the influence of the Romantic poets.

  

  

Wakefield Bridge and Chantry Chapel

Philip Reinagle

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wakefield_Bridge_and_Chantry_Chapel_by_Philip_Reinagle_1793.jpeg 

  

The Romantic poets did not concern themselves, though, entirely with the wilderness. Wordsworth in one of his best known sonnets, “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” captures the beauty of an urban landscape:

  

Earth has not anything to show more fair:

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty:

This City now doth, like a garment, wear

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,

Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;

Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:

Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;

And all that mighty heart is lying still!

  

The poem juxtaposes the beauty of the wilderness with the beauty of the city. It may just be me, but I think I detect a bit of “tongue in cheek” in the line “All bright and glittering in the smokeless air,” perhaps a nod to the polluted air of what is becoming the industrialized world. On this morning the smoke is not present, but the word “smokeless” suggests this might not be the air’s normal condition. That said, the poem does capture the beauty that can be found in that which humans create; there is the suggestion that we crave beauty and make our structures not just functional but pleasant to look at with a sublimity all their own. In Barrett’s painting above there can be seen in the ruin the outline of what was once a beautiful structure. In the battle between man and nature, nature may ultimately win, but that does not mean that man’s creations do not have a beauty of their own.

  

  

Westminster Hall and Bridge

Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Wesminster_Hall_and_Bridge_edited.jpg 

  

Suggested in all this is how we come to know and understand the natural world. There is not much (perhaps no) science in these paintings and poems, nothing to suggest how the natural world works and how it “manufactures” beauty. That which humans construct, the buildings, bridges, and other structures are designed and their construction overseen by architects who understand the laws of the natural world that their structures must contend with and, hopefully conquer, but also they have to have an “eye” for the beautiful, for the sublime. The paintings of the two bridges and the surrounding landscapes reveal not just a functional cityscape, but an attempt to create a cityscape that is pleasurable to look at. The buildings are not just boxes and the bridges do more than just span the water. 

  

The trees that have been planted around the buildings suggest a desire common to most of us to be surrounded not just by our own creations, but by the natural world as well. As human beings we have a desire to reconcile the natural world to our own world, the world we create to live in, that brings elements of the natural environment together with what we have built in a way that fosters community and cooperation. This is perhaps a bit idealized in that there are many within this community that are motivated solely by the products of trade, wealth and its generation, and the exploitation of labor perhaps to make the products of trade more personally profitable. But be that as it may, what we build, and what many of those “industrialists” build, are more than just functional. To be truly “happy,” truly at peace with the world, we desire the presence of the beautiful. This suggests that beauty and its presence in our lives may not always make us better people, but perhaps in contemplating beauty we are confronted with forces larger than ourselves and in ignoring these larger forces we become complicit in our moral deterioration. 

  

  The Philosophical Breakfast Club

Laura Snyder

TED Talk

  

The video begins by describing a meeting between two worlds, the world of the poet and the world of the scientist, it in fact tells us how the word “scientist” came to be invented. Where the world of the poet is more philosophical (or so Coleridge thought) and less concerned with the nuts and bolts of how nature works, the scientist is concerned with the running of the natural world. The video suggests that the poet, the philosopher, and the scientist all have the best interest of the human race at heart. It suggests they are all in their own way attracted to the natural world and to natural beauty. The members of the “Philosophical Breakfast Club” believed that science should make the world more understandable and that scientists should not profit from their own corner of the intellectual market place, but that their findings should be made public and available to all for free. Those, like harbor masters, that profited from their specialized knowledge were looked upon with disfavor. The public interest, not to mention public safety, was best served by making this information public and readily available. Then as well as now, there was much talk about who actually pays for this information that serves so well the public interest. The workman is worthy of his hire, and the work must be paid for by someone, and than, like now, the role of the public and private sectors in funding this work that serves the public good was an issue.

  

Of course poets, philosophers, and painters are not just concerned with the natural world, or only that part of the natural world occupied by rivers, woods, and animals. They also contemplate the human heart and much of the best poetry, art, and philosophy revolves around relationships. Shakespeare in his Sonnet XXIII writes about love, as is expected of a sonnet:

  

As an unperfect actor on the stage,

Who with his fear is put beside his part,

Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,

Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart;

So I, for fear of trust, forget to say

The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,

And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,

O’ercharged with burthen of mine own love’s might.

O! let my looks be then the eloquence

And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,

Who plead for love, and look for recompense,

More than that tongue that more hath more express’d.

O! learn to read what silent love hath writ:

To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.

  

One thing that initially struck me about this sonnet is that it begins with an observation from Shakespeare’s world, the world of the theater. He gives us a picture of a poorly prepared actor struggling with his lack of preparation and with “stage fright.” Anyone who has spent time in the theater is familiar with this sensation. Shakespeare than observes that strong emotions, like rage, when given free reign over us, weaken us. He then speaks of love and how his intense love has made him distrustful of his words and asks his eyes and the silence to speak for him. Poetry, whether it is focused on the natural world or the natural man, gives voice to our emotions, to our insights into the world and into ourselves. Its eloquence proceeds from passion, but as Wordsworth observed, passion that is under the poet’s control. Poetry, and the other arts, gives voice to our passions, but it only succeeds when we are not controlled by our passions. It is perhaps, the most intensely felt and, when done well, the most intensely disciplined acts of human expression.

  

     

Catterline

Anna King

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Catterline.jpg

  

Whan That Aprill with His Verses Soote


Jerusalem
Hubert Parry
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Whan That Aprill with His Verses Soote

Preface to Milton
William Blake
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Milton_preface.jpg

April is National Poetry Month. For students across America made to study poetry (or at least certain poems) against their will this might also make April the cruelest month. Of course for poetry to be properly appreciated it needs to be not so much studied as contemplated, reflected upon in the context of our lives and how they are lived. In studying poetry the focus often shifts from the passions that were aroused in the poet and which the poet is in turn trying to arouse in the reader to more academic concerns that, though they are important and should be considered, are beside the point. There was a recent article by Sven Birkerts in Lapham’s Quarterly on “idleness, “The Mother of Possibility”, in which he says,

“On a similar track, I wonder about childhood itself. I worry that in our zeal to plan out and fill up our children’s lives with lessons, play dates, CV-building activities we are stripping them of the chance to experience untrammeled idleness. The mind alert but not shunted along a set track, the impulses not pegged to any productivity. The motionless bobber, the hand trailing in the water, the shifting shapes of the clouds overhead. Idleness is the mother of possibility, which is as much as necessity the mother of inventiveness. Now that our technologies so adeptly bridge the old divide between industriousness and relaxation, work and play, either through oscillation or else a kind of merging, everything being merely digits put to different uses, we ought to ask if we aren’t selling off the site of our greatest possible happiness. ‘In wildness is the preservation of the world,’ wrote Thoreau. In idleness, the corollary maxim might run, is the salvaging of the inner life.”

There is a sense in which poetry was created to feed idleness. It will not be understood quickly and does not make many concessions to multi-tasking. It wants our undivided attention; it wants to force upon us a “Sabbath rest” that invigorates and nourishes our consciousness. What well written poetry does more often than it does anything else is change the way we see things; it enables us to see more clearly and deeply its object.

The song that began this is a poem by William Blake set to music. The illustration at the top of the page is Blake’s engraving designed as a visual accompaniment to the poem’s language. The song and the engraving underscore both the musicality of the poem’s language and vividness of its imagery and what is true of this poem is true of many, perhaps most poems; to be fully appreciated they should be heard and allowed to paint their pictures in the hearers imagination. Poems are more than words on a page. And where it is true that all written language is more than words on a page, poetry often becomes more incomprehensible the more it is reduced to the words that form the sum of its parts. Where a novel or an essay is using language to tell a story or communicate an idea, poetry is often using language to evoke, suggest, or point to something beyond itself and in this sense paying too much attention to the words themselves obscures what the words are trying to do.

Buttermere Lake, with Park of Cromackwater, Cumberland, a Shower
J. M. W. Turner
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Turner_Buttermere_Lake_with_Park_of_Cromackwater.jpg

In many ways poetry and painting are alike. The painting above is an impressionist landscape by J. M. W. Turner. It creates an image of water, mountains, rocks, vegetation, and sky. There is a boat in the water and one or two people in the boat. It provokes in the viewer an emotional response to the natural world and to its beauty and wildness. The images in the painting are not unlike those found in the opening lines of William Wordsworth’s poem “Tintern Abbey”

Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a sweet inland murmur
. — Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
Which on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky
.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which, at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Among the woods and copses lose themselves,
Nor, with their green and simple hue, disturb
The wild green landscape. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild; these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreathes of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees,
With some uncertain notice, as might seem,
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some hermit’s cave, where by his fire
The hermit sits alone.

There is not a one to one correlation; not everything in the painting is in the poem and not everything in the poem is in the painting but they both evoke a similar landscape and arouse similar emotions. The language of the poem is familiar and transparent; its meanings are not hidden.

The Magpie
Claude Monet
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Magpie.jpg

Not all poetry, though, is as easy to follow. The painting evokes the winter landscape and the emotions winter often brings. The poem “the Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens evokes similar emotions, though the language is less transparent and not so easily understood.

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

There is found in both the painting and the poem frost and the boughs of trees and snow to surround the listener. But there are meanings to the poem beyond what the eye can see and the ear can hear. The language of the poem conceals meanings beneath the snow it captures that the painting does not. Or perhaps it does, perhaps it takes a mind of winter and an ear attuned to the sounds of winter to appreciate the painting as fully as Monet would wish.

Oscar Wilde said, “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” I am not sure what Wilde meant by this, but it suggests to me that first impressions, those impressions that attract us to something are taken in through the senses. There is something I can see in the poem and the painting that attracts my attention even though I do not fully understand what I see. There is a mystery to be unraveled but the mystery is suggested by what appears on the surface of the canvas and the surface of the language. The first impression is “superficial” but it need not be “shallow.” The depth of that impression is determined by how deeply I pursue the mysteries the surfaces of the canvas and the language evoke.

Rogier Van Der Heide
TED Talk

The video clip suggests another aspect of this mystery of first impressions, of the play of light upon surfaces to create beauty. Using terms like “light” and “darkness” often suggests to us metaphorically “good” and “evil.” But that is not necessarily what is being suggested so much as the need for contrast in order for any surface to be fully appreciated. Robert Browning suggests this in the closing lines of his poem “Home Thoughts from Abroad,” when he says, “And though the fields look rough with hoary dew, / All will be gay when noontide wakes anew / The buttercups, the little children’s dower / – Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!” He is contrasting England’s less sunny landscape with the overly bright “gaudy” landscape of Italy. As is seen in the video when Van Der Heide compares brightly, uniformly lit spaces with those that are less uniformly lit. And even in his examples of cityscapes and of the planet viewed at night from space there is beauty, even though the light is not being used efficiently, in these images that contrast light and dark.

It might be argued that the beauty in a typical Ansel Adams photograph, or any black and white photograph, is created entirely by the contrasting of light colors with dark colors. But more importantly for me and what I am trying to say is what this suggests about poetry. The poems that often resonate the most, touch the reader the most are those that contrast effectively the expected with the unexpected; “the nothing that is not there” with “the nothing that is.” The line is a surprise and it delights us and it delights itself in keeping its secrets close.

The Tyger
William Blake
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Tyger_BM_a_1794.jpg

This element of surprise is also seen in the poem “The Tyger” by William Blake. The surprise begins with the engraving Blake made to illustrate the poem, especially the engraving of the “tyger.” The tyger in the poem is a terrifying creature and though we may not be entirely sure what Blake means in this poem we are entirely sure we would not like to meet this tyger. The poem evokes something more akin to the tiger in the painting below than the “stuffed animal” suggested by Blake’s illustration. And that is part of the surprise. We see from the contrast of the tyger with the lamb a suggestion that this wilder beast is a being equated with the devil as it is contrasted with that tamer beast “the lamb of God.” Perhaps what Blake means to suggest is that evil resides only in our minds and that the world exists in contrasts of light and dark and that neither is “bad” and that both are necessary; that, as Pope suggests in his “Essay on Man” “whatever is, is right.” Or perhaps Blake is suggesting something far more subtle, that evil often appears to us in the guise of innocence and that because we expect the face of evil to terrify us, we do not recognize it when it makes us smile.

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies,
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!)
Henri Rousseau
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Surprised-Rousseau.jpg

How necessary is poetry to life? Can we get along without it? Plato seemed to think so and would have banished poets, he suggests that they lie, distort, and create discontent within a society. His pupil Aristotle felt otherwise. Many avoid poets, not for the reasons Plato suggests but because poetry has gotten a reputation for being difficult to understand requiring too much work to offer any real pleasure. But to those that read poetry and enjoy it the pleasure lies in working things out grappling with the meanings the poems often conceal. But this is often true with life in general. What is easy is often boring; what comes without effort rarely satisfies. There is something in the poem that enchants us and it is this sublime enchantment that the reader and the writer of poetry seek. I think it is this enchantment that we all seek.