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

  

Beholders of Ocean


The King of the Fairies
Alan Stivell

Beholders of Ocean

A Man with a Quilted Sleeve
Titian
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tizian_078.jpg

There is a story by Lord Dunsany called “Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean.” It is about an idyllic place, a place of safety and comfort where no one is content, or at least very few are. On the one hand I suppose this is a story of discontent and the harm that it can do, but on the other, the more significant hand perhaps, it is about forsaking comfort and the illusion of contentment for what provides true satisfaction to the soul and spirit. In the story it is the ocean that everyone that leaves is seeking, but it could be anything. This suggests a question that each ought consider. Where is contentment found and what does it look like?

The song, The King of the Fairies, is by Alan Stivell. He is credited by some with re-popularizing the Irish Harp, though he does not play it on this selection. I first heard of him while taking a course on the Irish Renaissance while I was in college in 1975. Stivell is from Brittany, or the Irish province of France. The music of Stivell and others like him fed and cultivated my interest in Celtic myth and folklore, of which Arthur, the Irish story The Tain, and the Welsh stories of The Mabinogion were a part. These stories share a world in common, one in which the natural and the supernatural interact with one another and in which magic and wizardry are somewhat commonplace. In the Arthur stories Merlin is a difficult character to reconcile to the Christianity of the time when they were written down. He is a wizard and wizards are of the devil, but he is also a wise and trusted councilor and everyone in the stories trusts him, even as they are calling him a “son of the devil.” The stories also revolve around heroic characters and the adventures that befall them. They are exciting reading.

The painting is, according to some, of Ariosto (others say it is a self-portrait). Ariosto’s epic Orlando Furioso is also an important story for me because it caters both to my enjoyment of comedy, satire, and farce and the heroic stories mentioned earlier. It has been recently translated anew into English by David Slavitt. The characters in the story have an epic pedigree and they act as would be expected based on that pedigree. But this pedigree and the order of knighthood in general are also mocked and hence the irreverent humor. It too is exciting reading.

Earliest known portrayal of Thomas Becket’s murder in Canterbury Cathedral.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Thomas_Becket_Murder.JPG

The paintings above and below are from medieval illuminated manuscripts. The one above depicts the assassination of Thomas a’ Becket. The one below depicts an episode from one of the King Arthur stories. These images evoke the political intrigue of the Middle Ages and its conflicts between Church and State (some things do not change) as well as the heroic tradition of its story telling. There is a passage in the “Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales where Harry Bailey (though he has not yet been identified by name) says to the pilgrims “We are all free men.” The Canterbury Tales is a book written at the end of the 14th century, barely a hundred years since the final version of The Magna Carta was issued, and it is the first instance I am aware of (though I would not be surprised to learn there are earlier instances) where the commons claim equality with the church and aristocracy and in truth I am probably reading this line within a 21st century context and perhaps Harry does not see himself in as free a light as I do.

I wonder, though, at times if the equality that Harry speaks of is the beginning of a new tradition, a more realistic tradition, that is a bit at odds with that of Medieval Romance. There was an article in The Guardian over Christmas about science fiction, “Stranger than science fiction,” that wonders if our present interest in science fiction is not an attempt to escape the limitations of realism, that is “stuck” with things as they are and often offers few suggestions as to how to live harmoniously with things as they are, other than pretending perhaps that things as they are aren’t so bad. Science fiction also offers us a kind of story telling that is not just “lifelike” but often much larger than life and it is this something larger that readers also find attractive, they want to loose themselves in a world that is more heroic than mundane. The article suggests that it is important to identify the kind of story in which we would like to live or ought to live. The world of the 21st century offers many stories that though they may not be in conflict with each other are often more interested in selling us something, from products to points of view, than they are with helping us learn to live with ourselves, with others, or the world around us.

‘King Arthur fighting the Saxons’ – illustration taken from the Rochefoucauld Grail
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Rochefoucauld_Grail.jpg

Leading up to Christmas there were also some articles in The Guardian about favorite Christmas stories. Two caught my interest; they were about The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis and The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper (“Season’s Readings: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis” and “Season’s readings: The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper”). I read and enjoyed these stories as an adult and their use of myth and folklore (Greek and Roman myth by Lewis and Welsh myth by Cooper) nourished an interest I have always had in myth and folklore and the power of the stories that they tell. The Cooper story especially, with its use of motifs from The Mabinogion fed my interest in things Arthurian. But these were not the stories that provoked my interest initially.

The Nightingal
Edmond Dulac
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Edmund_Dulac_-_The_Nightingale_2.jpg

Above and below are illustrations from children’s stories. Like the illuminated manuscript images above, these help create a world, a magical world, that evoke the stories they illustrate and pique the imagination. Also as was true with some medieval illuminations they help tell the story to those who cannot yet read. When I was in the seventh grade my school gave students the opportunity to purchase books through the Weekly Reader and the Scholastic Book Service. One of the books that I bought was Eleanore Jewett’s book The Hidden Treasure of Glaston. I do not remember much of the book but its opening made a strong impression as well as its use of the Grail legend. The story revolves around a young boy whose father has left him with the monks of Glastonbury (one of the alleged resting places of King Arthur). His father is a knight who has been implicated in the murder of Thomas a’ Becket and must flee the country. The boy, though, is bookish and lame and a disappointment. I empathized with the boy (something we must all do before we can truly enjoy a story) and was fascinated by the Arthurian elements.

The Mermaid and The Prince
Edmond Dulac
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Edmund_Dulac_-_The_Mermaid_-_The_Prince.jpg

But what does this have to do with anything like beholding oceans? I suppose because both my parents were mathematicians I did not think that literature was anyplace I ought to end up. My father was also an aerospace engineer who brought home pictures and articles on space vehicles and rockets. I remember looking at artists’ conceptions of the Apollo spacecraft and the Lunar Excursion Module while watching the Mercury launches on television. Nonetheless I was attracted to a different ocean. If we are to be happy we must find our own ocean and pursue it as best we can and hopefully one day we will behold it. For me the ocean I behold is a sea of stories.

Why Medieval
Dr. Richard Scott Nokes

Dr. Richard Scott Nokes writes a blog, “Unlocked Wordhoard,” that I enjoy. He posted the above video to explain his interest in Medieval Literature and how that interest came about. Sharing a similar interest I found the video attractive but the important point it raises is not about the Middle Ages or even about literature, it is about finding whatever it is in us that motivates us, that gives us joy and satisfaction. We all need to consider what it is we are going to spend our lives doing. On the whole it is a pretty good thing if we can find a way to get someone to pay us for doing what we would do for free. If we must earn a living why not find a way to enjoy ourselves while earning that living.

Elif Batuman in the introduction to her book The Possessed writes, “I stopped believing that ‘theory’ had the power to ruin literature for anyone, or that it was possible to compromise something you loved by studying it. Was love really such a tenuous thing? Wasn’t the point of love that it made you want to learn more, to immerse yourself, to become possessed?” This resonates with me as a teacher of stories, but it also resonates at a different level. We all need to find whatever it is for us that we can spend a lifetime loving, and whatever it is, it must be substantial enough to reward a lifetime’s effort.

As a teacher it is important that I communicate to students who have little interest in what I teach the passion that motivates me to teach what I teach. It is not all about emotions, but than there is perhaps more to passion than emotion. Richard Feynman was at least as passionate about physics and the logic that is its foundation as I am about stories and their logic. Poltarnees may be a high and difficult mountain to climb, but it is wonderful thing to behold the ocean.

Christmas Eve
Carl Larsson
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Julaftonen_av_Carl_Larsson_1904.jpg


A Passionate Discipline


God Bless the Child
Blood, Sweat, and Tears

A Passionate Discipline

The Arnolfini Portrait
Jan van Eyck
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jan_van_Eyck_001.jpg

The song celebrates the child that knows what she or he wants and is able to get whatever that is. The lyric just says “God bless the child that’s got his own” but I think the thing to have is self-knowledge and the skills necessary to achieve the heart’s desire. Perhaps the song means something different but that is what I think. In an English class the thing to have is the ability to use language well, or the potential that can be shaped into that ability. Not everyone in English class aspires to be a writer, but the English class aspires to make competent writers of everyone. The goal may be seem an unrealistic one to the student, one that makes too many demands on the student, but it is seen as an achievable goal by most English teachers.

Writing as a craft or an art is a very different thing from writing as a skill. I have great admiration for anyone who can tell a story and has the discipline to put that story into a book and then to get that book published. It is a thing that is very difficult to do. There was an article in The Guardian this past week about the writer Dan Brown whose new book The Lost Symbol was published this past week. The article, “True confession: I don’t hate Dan Brown”, is about the reaction Dan Brown’s books often receive from those that write “literature” or “serious fiction and/or non-fiction.” The author of the article, Jean Hannah Edelstein, does not care much for Brown’s books, but is grateful that he brings people into bookstores and gets people excited about reading who might not otherwise get excited about reading and some of these people will go on to read “serious stuff.”

The painting suggests the importance of craft and discipline for the artist. It is a realistic painting that attempts to capture the reality of the scene it portrays down to the reflection in the mirror at the back of the room. The painting, I was told once in an art class, was a kind of marriage certificate and that the scene was not in fact a realistic portrayal of the people in the painting, but a goal for their marriage. The woman in the painting is pregnant. According to the story told by my art teacher she was not in fact pregnant at the time the painting was done, but that was the couple’s hope for the near future. But that said, the painting looks real and is meticulous in its attempt to capture all the little details of the room and the people in it (and also the dog). For the artist that painted the painting this may have just been a commission, a piece of work over which he had few feelings beyond the receipt of his fee. His subject, after all, was chosen for him.

The artist, whether a writer, a painter, a musician, or a worker in some other medium, has to find a balance between passion and polish. If the subject is chosen for the artist, the task becomes one of finding the passion that will give life to the work. If the subject is chosen by the artist passion is probably not the problem, the problem is finding the discipline and the skill to shape that moment of passionate inspiration into something meaningful and “finished.” Wordsworth defined poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” This suggests to me that the effective poet is able to capture an emotion after that emotion no longer has power over her or him; it is a recollection of an emotional moment after the moment has passed. This recollection must evoke the emotion in the poet without the poet being dominated by it.


The Dot and the Line
Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer

The film captures the essence of artistic discipline. The squiggle is inspiration without form or control. The line, on the other hand, was uninspired but in firm control, at least initially. He is not without passion; he just does not have the tools to give expression to his emotions. The line, though, finds inspirations and brings control and form to that inspiration. He is in the grips of a powerful emotion, love, and while he uses that passion to inspire his work and to motivate him to do his artistic work, the passion does not control his expression. This is, I think, the essence of the artist’s struggle, though, the degree of freedom from that passion may not always be absolute. There may be a conversation between the passion and the intellect that controls the process and polishes the rough edges.

The Yellow House
Talkback Thames

In this film depicting a painting expedition of Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin it is clear one painter is in the grips of passionate inspiration and the other is not. Gauguin paints deliberate lines and is in absolute control of what he does and what he does has little interest to the viewer. Van Gogh on the other hand seems to be in the grips of powerful emotion and his end product is one the viewer wants to see in greater detail than the glimpse that is given. Van Gogh helps himself control the process by constructing a kind of grid through which he looks but other than that he creates with a good bit of spontaneity and freedom.

Of course, this is a cinematic portrayal of what the director believes the moment was like, but that does not guarantee that the film got it right. It may be that the director, who meticulously controlled the action of the scene, created an effect that agreed with what he imagined the moment to be like, but that effect may have been fathered not by the facts of the moment but by what the director’s romantic imagination suggested to him were the facts of that moment. But is art necessarily concerned with truth or does it create its own truth.

Drawing of Purkinje cells (A) and granule cells (B) from pigeon cerebellum
Santiago Ramón y Cajal
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:PurkinjeCell.jpg

The painting below and the drawing above both use lines on a piece of paper to suggest the way things work. The image above attempts to illustrate the workings of a pigeon’s brain. The image below depicts the norns, characters from Norse myth who, like the fates in Greek myth, weave a person’s destiny. The lines that run through the drawing are the threads that will make the tapestry that will capture the destiny of the tapestry’s object, the person whose destiny is being cast. I wonder if there is a connection between the lines that illustrate the synapses of the brain and the lines in the tapestry that illustrate a person’s fate.

I have always enjoyed stories that are illustrated. I think the illustrator’s art often adds new dimensions to the storyteller’s art. These dimensions are not always found in the story but if the illustrations are done well, these dimensions were certainly evoked by the story. Tolkien said that he removed a giant’s shoes because he liked the illustration of a barefoot giant more than his description of the giant wearing boots. Sometimes, evidently, the illustrator may influence the direction aspects of the story take. On the other hand there is the story of Seymour. Dickens was hired to write a story around the popular artist’s illustrations. The public, however, preferred Dickens’ story to Seymour’s drawing and Dickens was given the freedom to take the story where he wished. The humiliation led to Seymour’s suicide. Art can be a dangerous business.

Norns weaving destiny
Arthur Rackham
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Nornsweaving.jpg

There was an article in the Boston Globe this weekend about books and music and how books rarely evoke music. The article, “Pynchon on shuffle”, was about how Thomas Pynchon created a soundtrack of music from the 1960’s to play behind the events of his story. Most of the songs are real and those who lived through this moment in time recognize them, but many are of his own invention and serve his artistic purposes. But why is it that some art forms are more friendly with one another than others. Why do words and pictures go together so well, and why do words and music when joined in song go together so well, but not words apart from music, words that are not sung but only evoke what might be sung?

I do not think there should be such antipathy between the written word that might be spoken and the written word that was written to be sung. There is often music in the sounds of words and many books to be fully appreciated need to be read aloud. We expect this to be true of poetry but it is often true of prose as well. I think, for example, The Great Gatsby is a very musical text when read aloud. Storytelling began as a spoken art, we ask someone to “tell” us a story and not to “write” us a story (unless of course we are English teachers). The first stories, The Iliad and The Odyssey for example, were not written down until much later, originally they were performed, sung, to their early audiences. Perhaps one day, when the technology allows, books will have their own internal jukebox so that they will sing to us again.

Rosebud
Kay Nielsen
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kay_Nielsen00a.jpg

I have always enjoyed the illustrations of Kay Nielson. In this image from the Grimm’s Brother’s story of “Snow White” or “Rosebud” as they called it (or at least as it was called in this edition of the tale), we see an overgrown castle and a prince awakening the sleeping princess. The lines appear in the background and I wonder if they are not the threads of fate woven by the norns in the earlier illustration. Perhaps they are just shafts of light suggesting the first light of morning but they add a nice stylized touch to the image. And being a picture of Snow White, it is difficult not to imagine the story without the soundtrack of the film playing in the background. The title of the painting also evokes another film, a different kind of fairy tale, Citizen Kane, a film in which a different rosebud had a place of prominence. Music and story may not be intimate friends but as stories become films their soundtracks, the music that plays behind the action, become a part of our experience of the story and are often difficult to separate from the story when we are getting the story from the printed page rather than from the silver screen.

Again, though, is the art of the cinema an art that proceeds from passion, as with Van Gogh and his painting in the film clip earlier, or is it one that proceeds from commission, like the painting at the top. A director does not always chose his scripts; actors do not always chose their roles. What part of the process is passion being controlled by a disciplined mind and what part is a disciplined mind seeking out the passion. Can art be the product of a dispassionate process that exerts the artist’s skill on the process without the artist’s emotional involvement? Can the artist be emotionally detached from the work and still produce a work of artistic merit? Can a work of artistic merit be produced without emotional detachment? How much of this painting is unbridled passion and how much is careful control of the painter’s medium? The painter’s emotions emanate from this painting, but the painting is not a squiggle, there is a disciplined hand at work.

Wheat Field with Crows
Vincent Van Gogh
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vincent_van_Gogh_(1853-1890)_-_Wheat_Field_with_Crows_(1890).jpg