No. 13: The Eve of St Agnes, John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness… 

So wrote Keats. And he was right. Autumn hails the harvest; apples and squash and pumpkins and blackberries – the last of which always transports me back to my childhood. 

London has been startlingly beautiful these past few weeks. Crisp, foggy mornings evaporate into beautiful days. We’ve had stretches of perfectly clear, perfectly blue skies. The sun radiating low in the sky, brown leaves strewn across the streets. 

As a bit of a country bumpkin I like to be outdoors as much as possible, revelling in the seasons. Bar in winter, which, by now, we all know I dislike. 

Similarly, you might now know I’m not a great poetry reader, and this is where Keats and I come to blows. 

The Romantics… Sigh… I’m not a fan. Never have been, and I’m not sure I ever will be. There are die-hard romantic poetry readers out there who have stared agog after I’ve delivered this conclusion. 

Wordsworth, Shelley, Blake… Sorry, gents. You’re just not my gig. I said as much to my Romantic poetry lecturer, a man with four names (Matthew Scott Lawrence Thomas) of which l still wasn’t clear what sequence these came in after three years at uni. 

I have sat down to read The Eve of St Agnes, this week’s Little Black Classic, so many times and each time I struggle.  I found a reading online, so I took to listening to this instead.

It is the Feast of St. Agnes, a cold winter’s night on 20 January. Madeline, the daughter of a lord, living in a great Medieval castle,  has performed various rituals that will ensure she sees her lover in her dreams.

Her nurse, Angels, tells Porphyro, a suitor, of Madeline’s superstitious beliefs and plan, and so he hides in Madeline’s closet to act as the heavenly vision.

Sure enough, Madeline does dream of Porphyro, and is less than impressed when the real, material Porphryo disturbs her slumber by strumming her lute. No euphemism intended.

This doesn’t stop her from running off into the night with Porphyro, leaving those at the feast to encounter terrible dreams that night and, in some instances, die.

This felt different to Keats’ other poems and Odes, which are filled with seasons and nature. It harks back to Medieval romance – chivalry, damsels in distress etc.

Aside from a man hiding in a woman’s wardrobe being exceptionally dubious (and I’m with Madeline on being annoyed at being woken, particularly with a musical instrument), I struggled with this narrative poem. It’s exceptionally long and Madeline and Porphyro seemed rather two-dimensional, despite the length of descriptions. The conclusion is also completely bizarre and jarring.

Give me Goblin Market instead, please! The teasing goblins and flawed women jump off the pages of Rossetti’s narrative poem in a way that Madeline and Porphyro don’t. Unlike Goblin Market, I also couldn’t find any metaphor hidden beneath the lyricism, meaning my aversion to Keats and romantic poetry still, sadly, stands.

And so, on a beautiful Autumnal day, I dragged my lovely friend Sophie around Southwark in search of the man himself. 

img_7407

Many don’t know that Keats was, in fact, an apothecary and worked at Guy’s Hospital, near London Bridge. A man of many talents and disciplines.

Sophie and I met in Borough Market, very near a house Keats once occupied, before we embarked on a search for a statue of the poet in the grounds of Guy’s Hospital. 

img_7403

After a few laps around the grounds, both feeling like impostors, we headed for a cloistered area, confident we’d find Keats there. Sure enough, in the shadow of the Shard, there he was, peering out wistfully at the hospital he had worked at, as if on the brink of a wonderful, poetic idea. 

img_7480

img_7413

I once more trespassed, clutching my Little Black Classic, a few onlookers looking on bemused (all very standard with this blog). Sophie was an excellent accomplice. I have such a great group of friends – the things I make them do!

img_7424

img_7453

It is, however, a charming statue in a quiet, peaceful garden. Sophie and I could have happily sat with Keats for some time and mulled over the Romantics. But, alas, we decided the pub was calling. Priorities.

Thank you, Ella, for choosing this week’s Classic. Next week… Coleridge! More romantic poetry… Sigh… 

Advertisements

No. 69: I Hate and I Love, Catullus

WARNING:

The following post contains erotic content!

DSC_0073

(Photo credit: My friend Poppy. Cheek in the ruins of Carmo Convent, Lisbon. See last week’s post for more of our Lisbon-based literary antics). 

Catullus is a naughty man. You have been warned.

BACK TO THE NORMAL SCHEDULE

This week’s post is awash with provocative sex scenes, a tremendous coincidence and tales form foreign shores. So please stick with me for this one – you won’t regret it. Let your hair down, nestle back in your chair, take a sip of your cup of tea (some might prefer something a little stronger), and let me and Catullus entertain you.

March was a revelrous month, what with a trip to Lisbon and the extended Easter weekend. It was restorative to have a quiet weekend in my flat at the beginning of April, the perfect environment to familiarise myself with Catullus.

I had not heard of Catullus prior to reading this Little Black Classic. A quick flick through revealed this is a collection of poetry, the perfect reading to dip in to.

The main focus of this poetry collection is Catullus’s infatuation with a woman called Lesbia, who he addresses directly in a number of his poems. Take his preoccupation with kissing her in the second poem:

“Kiss me now a / thousand times & / now a hundred / more & then a / hundred & a / thousand more again / til with so many / hundred thousand / kisses you & I / shall both lose count”

Sweet love!

Two poems later, and Catullus is back in the same frame of mind:

“as many as / the sky has stars / at night shining / in quiet upon / the furtive loves / of mortal men, / as many kiss- / es of you lips / as they might slake / your own obsessed / Catullus”

True romance!

But relations turn sour; it’s clear that Lesbia and Catullus quarrel. His tone changes – his writing is abrupt and disjointed. He tries to convince Lesbia that he doesn’t miss her:

“Not again, Lesbia. / No more. / Catullus is clear. / He won’t miss you.”

Methinks he doth protest too much. Surely this heartache and denial is familiar to all of us.

His misery evolves into anger. In a particularly violent poem, Catullus says that, while he casts off his grief and travels the world, he hopes the “tart” Lesbia is enjoying new relationships. He’s sarcastic and cutting, imagining her in brutal and rape-like sex orgies, “dragging the guts out.”

It’s seriously graphic. I won’t include it here (my Grandma reads this) but this is, essentially, 2,000 year old revenge porn.

Ancient art and literature show that civilisations were openly experimental sexually, but I’ve not yet come across any ancient text that’s quite so violent or venomous. I felt completely awful for Lesbia. A past lover publicising sexual scenarios is a terrifying, haunting prospect.

Later, Catullus implies Lesbia is a prostitute, as she “loiters at the cross roads / and in the backstreets”. He’s clearly obssesed with her but moves on, distracting himself with Ipsíthilla. He requests she “Call me to you / at siesta / we’ll make love” and “stay at home / & in your room / … I’ll come at once.”

Ahem.

Despite Ipsíthilla’s appeal, Catullus can’t shake off Lesbia. He’s conflicted – his hatred transcends into love and vice versa.

image1

Half of his references to Lesbia are degrading, as described above; the other half are ardent. Toward the end of the poetry collection, for example, he says “Lesbia is loveliness indeed” and compares her to the goddess Venus.

The final poem concludes with Catullus finding love with another, although insecurities bubble beneath, as he hopes

“God let her mean what she says, /  from a candid heart, / that our two lives may be linked in their length / day to day, / each to each, / in a bond of sacred fidelity.”

This is a wonderful collection of poems. It might be 2,000 years old, but it perfectly displays the contradictions of love – how it can be both profound and beautiful, painful and ugly. It makes both poets and monsters of us all.

One of my greatest loves is Italy. It’s my favourite country – the cities, the countryside, the art, the food, the drinks, the gelato. *Sigh.

Two weeks ago, my friend Thom and I returned from a short break in Italy, where we first spent a couple of days in Sirmione on Lake Garda, before we moved on to Milan. It was idyllic – we scaled cathedrals and castles, swooned at godly statues and consumed numerous Aperol spritz. We also decided that a boat trip was essential – a few hours on the lake, basking in sunshine, with a picnic and poetry. Perfect.

At university, where we met, Thom and I read from two breeze-block books – the Norton Anthologies of English Literature. Through our three years at uni we studied a huge number of erotically charged texts (there’s no escaping them) and joked that, one day, we could collate all those erotic writings and publish an anthology of our own for future students. We dubbed it the Naughty Norton.

As I read Catullus, a week prior to our trip, I decided I had to take him with me with Italy. He was an excellent candidate for the Naughty Norton.

I researched him a bit more to garner more about this Italian heritage. In a weird twist of fate that I’m crediting to the Roman Gods, Catullus is rumoured to have come from Sirmione, where Thom and I had booked to stay.

No, I am serious.

Spooky.

I was thrilled to find a bust of the poet standing not fifteen paces from the door of our B&B.

thumb_IMG_4065_1024

There is a villa, called the Grotto of Catullus, jutting out onto Lake Garda at the very tip of Sirmione, where Catullus is rumoured to have lived. This has since been disproved, but it is understood that his parents did own a villa in Sirmione and so Catullus inevitably visited. Unsurprisingly, the local scenery inspired much of his poetry…

thumb_IMG_3846_1024

thumb_IMG_3983_1024

thumb_IMG_4100_1024

We rented a boat in the morning (an experience that was completely brilliant but not the calm idyll I had evisaged. No poetry was read, rather camp 80s music videos re-created) and visited the ruins of the villa in the afternoon.

thumb_IMG_4036_1024

We could hear the waters of the lake lapping as we strolled around the ruins. The sun spilled out overhead. Italian conversation lingered. It was compeltely idyllic.

thumb_IMG_4016_1024

thumb_IMG_4042_1024

thumb_IMG_4018_1024

A big thank you to Gemma the Gem for choosing this week’s Little Black Classic, and thank you to Thom for letting me march him around Sirmione in search of Catullus!

Next time I will be reading Samuel Pepys’ The Great Fire of London.

IMG_4426

 

No. 53: Goblin Market, Christina Rossetti

So, here it is! My first post of the year.

2016 threw its doors open. I ran in, grateful for the new start, and am now standing, slightly disillusioned, in it’s shabby blue hallway.

Thirteen Little Black Classics read, 67 to go. *Gulp. An overwhelming prospect.

The Classic to kick off 2016 is Goblin Market, chosen by my beloved Grandma (affectionately dubbed ‘Silver Spice’ since I was a sprog, as she was such a cool Grandma that she could be the sixth member of the Spice Girls). You might remember I visited her in Plymouth back when I read The Voyage of Sir Francis Drake.

IMG_2821

This is not my first time reading Goblin Market. In my second year of uni, I read the poem for a Womens Writing module, having first fallen in love with Rossetti’s poetry as a teen. Most probably feeling worse for wear from a devastating cold or self-inflicted misery, I just couldn’t fathom the narrative poem.

Two friends and I were late for the Goblin Market lecture, which was based in a  particularly poky classroom. We arrived two minutes after the lecturer, a dishevelled man in his late thirties. He had shoulder length hair, a beanie permanently pinned to his head, plaid shirts and cable knit cardigans galore. The girls on my course fancied him, alarmingly, as the one eligible male member of the English faculty.

We rushed into the room, where the front three desks directly under the lecturer’s nose were the only unoccupied seats. We shuffled in, plonking our bags on the desks and removing our coats while the lecturer fussed over the projector screen, flustered and fraught.

When ready, he patted down his body, unable to locate his lecture notes. It was the most disjointed lecture, the six slides on the projector screen failing to trigger his memory and offering no illumination to the thirty students.

If possible, the little I had garnered from reading the poem prior to the lecture trickled away as I sat there, listening to his confused ramblings.

“I just wish I had my notes!” he howled  every five minutes, apologising profusely.

As the lecture came to a close, I put my coat back on, exchanging raised eyebrows with my friends, and picked up my bag, under which I discovered HIS NOTES.

I felt so guilty. I ruined that entire room’s understanding of the poem, and made a brilliant literary man question his own mind.

I considered harbouring them all to myself for about 30 seconds, but the notes were a tangle of nonsense. Much like if you were to read my notebook for this blog – they make sense to no-one but me.

The guilty feeling soon returned and so I simply binned them, never choosing the text for any essay or exam as self-punishment.

As a result, I approached this Little Black Classic with some trepidation.

Goblin Market is reminiscent of a Grimm fairy tale. On the surface, it appears to be a fable-like story for children. But it’s riddled with dark complexities and tensions bubble beneath the surface. It’s a strange mix of being both sentimental and sweet, and slightly uncomfortable.

The poem opens

“Morning and evening / Maids heard the goblins cry: / Come buy our fruits, / Come buy, come buy”

These goblin men offer countless tempting fruits – from apples and oranges, peaches and raspberries, to mulberries and pomegranates, damsons and dewberries.

Two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, enjoy the great outdoors and hear the goblins’ market call

Lizzie warns Laura “Their evil gifts would harm us.” She reminds Laura of a girl called Jeanie, who ate the goblin fruits. Jeanie sought the goblins out but could never find them again and was driven mad. She, “Who should have been a bride,” was driven to an early grave, so consumed with desire.

Laura doesn’t listen to her sensible sister, and pays for the goblin fruits with a precious golden curl from her head. She gorges on the treasure trove of fruits. She “never tasted tasted such before” and “sucked until her lips were sore.”

Saucy!

Like Jeanie, Laura can’t find the goblin men again, wanting to take Lizzie to experience their delicious fruits. So the two sisters go about their domestic lives.

“They lay down in their curtained bed: / Like two blossoms on one stem”

They milked the cows, baked, churned butter, sewed. But

“one content, one sick in part; / One Warbling for the mere bright day’s delight, / One longing for the night.”

Here we have one sister who is modest, well behaved, virginal. The other is rebellious, unsatisfied and corrupted. The descriptions of her eating the forbidden fruits are very erotic. She is that classic Victorian idea of a fallen woman.

Lizzie can’t bear to see her sister pine for the fruits, and watches her fade away, like an addict. Laura even stops carrying out her domestic duties, she’s so consumed with desire.

How atrocious.

Wanting to see her sister happy, Lizzie goes in search of the goblin men on Laura’s behalf. She soon finds them (or they find her) but they don’t allow her to take the fruits away. They insist she eats there with them but she is defiant.

What follows is an attack. They force their fruits on her. They elbow, jostle, bark, tear, soil, stamp, pinch, kick, maul and mock. There’s no getting away from the fact that it’s rape-like.

“White and golden Lizzie stood”

She refuses to open her lips. She sacrifices herself and her own purity for her sister and, when the goblin men finally tire and abandon her, she loyally runs home to Laura.

“Come and kiss me. / Never mind my bruises, / Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices.”

And so, in a particularly homoerotic scene, Laura eats the fruits from Lizzie’s body. She passes out and her sister lovingly revives her back to health.

When they grow up and have children of their own, the both warn their daughters of the goblin men.

“For their is no friend like a sister”

I loved this poem. I can’t understand why I didn’t enjoy it at university. It has so much drama, and two different but flawed women at it’s core.

I couldn’t help but think of my own sister, who is my most loyal friend. You might remember her from The Beautifull Cassandra, when I wrote of our comparison to the Dashwood sisters.

This was made all the more real this week with Alan Rickman’s sad passing, which both Katy and I were devastated by. He was our Colonel Brandon! I’ve been in Sense and Sensibility mode ever since, and the devotion of the sisters in Goblin Market reminds me of the Dashwoods. Katy is the Lizzie to my Laura, the Elinor to my Marianne!

I can remember one slide from that disastrous lecture. It showed an artwork by Dante Rossetti, the pre-Raphaelite artist and Christina’s brother, in which the two sisters lie  innocently together, sleeping, and was created for the poem’s original publication.

I set upon seeing this in the flesh, so to speak, which seemed even more appropriate as my sister is an art historian (see my Circles of Hell post).

I made my way to the British Library, my first trip to an academic setting setting since university. (Have no fear, library users, I frequent local libraries).

thumb_IMG_5433_1024

thumb_IMG_5437_1024

It was incredibly exciting. I love visiting the British Library for exhibitions anyway, but stepping into a reading room, lined with hard-working students, and great volumes of brilliance, was thrilling. I collected a small maroon box, and headed to my chosen seat.

IMG_2822

nside, a delicate book of leaves was tied with a bow, like an ageing gift. I carefully untied the ribbon, and opening the crackling cover to reveal this…

IMG_2795

It was beautiful, and utterly thrilling to hold a second edition of the poem. The artwork is abundantly pre-Raphaelite. Look at their hair, their fairy-tale serenity. Beautiful!

My friend Lois and I then headed to the Alice in Wonderland display, currently showing at the British Library, where the Rossettis were mentioned several times.  Did you know that Lewis Carroll was friends with the Rossettis, and mirrored Dante’s style when drawing his own Alice, or that Christina’s book ‘Speaking Likenesses’ is an imitation of Carroll’s Alice stories, in which little girls are rewarded and punished depending on their behaviour…?

I finally feel strangely rewarded after hiding those lecture notes!

IMG_2825

Thank you so much for choosing this poem, Silver Spice! I don’t think you could have picked a better Classic for your Granddaughter, and her sister.

Next time I will be blogging about H.G. Wells’ A Slip under the Microscope.

thumb_IMG_5424_1024

No. 50: Anthem for Doomed Youth, Wilfred Owen

It has been entirely fortuitous that this Little Black Classic has fallen into step with Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day.

I asked my friend Becky to choose for me after we attended Alice’s Adventures Underground together back in July, which I mentioned when I blogged about Mozart’s My Dearest Father.

And so here I am, a poppy pinned to my lapel, and the Great War poet sitting before me.

For any readers who perhaps aren’t familiar with this poppy the British wear from early November, or what Remembrance Sunday or Armistice Day are, I will come to this shortly. But for now I would like to greet Wilfred Owen and give him the attention he duly deserves.

thumb_IMG_5301_1024

As with most Brits, I became familiar with Wilfred Owen at school. We studied the World Wars in depth for GCSE History and travelled to the battlefields of France and Belgium to better understand the terrible warfare that those fields witnessed from 1914 to 1918.

Reading Owen this month transported me right back to the battlefields and the British, French and German graveyards that we visited on that Battlefields trip.

In contrast, I read this Little Black Classic on a train down to Plymouth where my Mum’s family are from – you might remember from The Voyage of Sir Francis Drake.

Passing through Devon’s idyllic valleys, surrounded by folding hills dotted with frothy sheep, and blanketed with Autumnal trees, I couldn’t have been more far removed from the horrors of war.

But Owen brought it right to my train carriage.

A soldier himself, Wilfred Owen poetry’s strips bear life in the trenches. Unlike other primary sources, his direct experience and elevated language makes for highly emotional reading.

The very first poem in this Little Black Classic, ‘1914,’ perfectly summarises the terrible darkness that the First World War cast over the world in its first stanza

“War broke: and now the Winter of the world / With perishing great darkness closes in. / The foul tornado, centred at Berlin, / Is over all the width of Europe whirled”

The second poem of this collection is arguably Owen’s most famous, and transports me right back to my History classroom. Once I could have probably dictated ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ entirely from memory.

It’s a completely evocative poem. It perfectly captures the horror, the grime and futility of life in the trenches. It’s packed with filth and fear.

I can’t highlight sections for you here, I just wouldn’t do it justice. The poem should be read in its entirety.

So here it is. If you’re going to read something, please skip the rest of my blog and just read this:

thumb_IMG_5317_1024

It’s those closing, ironic words that are so haunting. “Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori,” meaning “It is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country.”

Similarly, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ draws a line under the terrible deaths of these young men who were mown down unceremoniously.

thumb_IMG_5321_1024

In contrast, the poem called ‘From My Diary, July 1914’ depicts the opposite of gruesome warfare. Instead, Owen fantasises about the idyll and beauty of the natural world, like “Birds / Cheerily chirping in the early day” and “Stirs / Of leaflets in the gloom; soft petal-showers.”

This calm jars with the chaos of the other poems in this collection.

Owen paints all types of soldiers. In ‘S.I.W.’ He gives us a soldier who kills himself, unable to bear the trenches any more, and in doing so disgraces his proud father, while in ‘The Letter’ it’s a man writing home to his sweetheart, instructing his friend to finish the letter if he is killed in action.

‘Mental Cases’ shows us the impact of shell shock, today more commonly known as post-traumatic stress disorder, while ‘Disabled’ presents men of all ages left physically scarred and dismembered.

thumb_IMG_5313_1024

I think perhaps the most poignant of lines for me is taken from ‘A Terre’:

“We used to say we’d hate to live dead-old, – / Yet now… I’d willingly be puffy, bald, / And patriotic.”

This really is a terrific collection of poetry. You don’t need to know anything about the First World War to read it; the collection simply gives some sense of life in the trenches and the devastation of war.

One hundred years might have passed but, in my opinion, these poem should be read and re-read to remind us.

During and after the First World War poppy flowers sprung up in the battlefields of Belgium and France, becoming an appropriate, blood-red symbol for the horror that took place.

And so, as led by the British Legion, many Brits wear a poppy on their lapels in early November to show that they are thinking of those that have given their lives in combat – both in the World Wars and in more recent conflicts.

All proceeds from poppy sales go toward financial and emotional support for members and veterans of the British Armed Forces.

This is not to say that every Brit wears one, and no one is expected to wear one. It is a matter of choice.

The second Sunday of the month is Remembrance Sunday where church services and parades are held across the country to remember the fallen.

Even in my home town, the smallest town in Kent, the local people gather on the high street to watch local organisations march up to our own war memorial.

On Remembrance Sunday this year I headed to the nation’s largest Remembrance ceremony at the national war memorial – the Cenotaph.

Every year the Royal Family, key members of Parliament and service men and women, along with the general public, line the streets to pay homage to those who have fought for our country and the commonwealth. The proceedings are televised.

This year, I grabbed my camera (and a much needed coffee) and made my way to join the throngs.

Upon exiting Westminster station, I saluted Big Ben and walked along Parliament Street to Whitehall, claiming my spot as near to the Cenotaph with some sort of a view.

thumb_IMG_4968_1024

To be honest, it wasn’t much of a spot. I was about three people deep in the crowd, despite having got there an hour and a half early. I saw a fair amount of the proceedings through other people’s cameras. You can imagine how deep the crowd was behind me once events actually kicked off.

I was between Big Ben and the Cenotaph, the Royal Family and other dignitaries joining from the other side, down from the Mall and Trafalgar Square. If you want to see pictures of these figures laying their poppy wreaths at the foot of the Cenotaph click here.

I did, however, watch the various marching bands arrive and we saw the thousands of veterans march, to applause, along to Westminster Abbey after the proceedings. Both were utterly thrilling. Here are some pictures of the various bands.

thumb_IMG_5266_1024

thumb_IMG_5257_1024

thumb_IMG_5275_1024

At the bottom of this blog, you will find my countless shots of the veterans.  There were thousands of them. It was amazing to watch them pass in all their uniforms, all shapes, sizes, nations.

Remembrance Sunday entails various songs and prayers but the main event is the two minute silence.

When Big Ben struck 11am (a wave of electricity still runs through me whenever I hear Big Ben chime – it’s one of my favourite sounds), cannons fired and silence answered.

I wasn’t sure what to expect on a London street, the pavements packed with onlookers.

But deafening silence reigned. No child spoke or cried. Cameras stopped clicking. All I could hear was the flapping of a plastic poncho, modelled by a lady ahead of me, and a bird singing. It struck me how unusual it was to hear a bird chorusing on a thriving London street.

The two minutes concluded with more cannon fire and the Last Post, which always manages to bring a tear to my eye.

I’m posting this on 11th November, Armistice Day, when the cannons of the First World War stopped firing at 11am in 1918 and the conflict ceased.

A two-minute silence is traditionally held at 11am on 11th November every year. Whether at school, or at work, much of the nation stops for two minutes to think and pay respects to our fallen.

Very poignantly, Owen died exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice on the 11th November 1918.

And so, this year, when my office stops for those two minutes, I will be thinking about Wilfred Owen and Dulce et Decorum Est.

thumb_IMG_5304_1024

thumb_IMG_5291_1024

Thank you, Becky, for your brilliant choice of Little Black Classic. ‘Enjoyed it’ isn’t the phrase, but I did really appreciate these poems.

Next time I will be reading Sinbad the Sailor.

IMG_2243

As promised, here are just a few (no, I’m serious) of the veterans who marched along Whitehall.

thumb_IMG_5031_1024thumb_IMG_5048_1024thumb_IMG_5059_1024

thumb_IMG_5060_1024thumb_IMG_5074_1024thumb_IMG_5238_1024

thumb_IMG_5080_1024thumb_IMG_5094_1024thumb_IMG_5101_1024

thumb_IMG_5137_1024thumb_IMG_5155_1024thumb_IMG_5166_1024

thumb_IMG_5219_1024thumb_IMG_5221_1024thumb_IMG_5233_1024

No. 25: Circles of Hell, Dante

Good news – I’m alive and well! Feeling very conscious and rather guilty that I haven’t blogged in while, which will be explained in due course.

I said as much to one friend, who in turn said I shouldn’t feel guilty – writing should be fun after all. This was excellent advice (she’s wise beyond her years) but I’ve still been really keen to get this blog posted.

So here I am, at last. In actual fact, I read Dante’s Circles of Hell a few weekends ago, when summer was on the brink of falling. It was a hot, sticky day – a perfect reflection of the fiery flames of hell.

I’d not read any Dante before. Our paths crossed here and there at uni but never long enough to form a real bond.

My future brother-in-law (now, that is fun to say!) chose this Little Black Classic and I’ve been so excited to read it. I’m a bit of a Classical nerd, something I’m sure I will discuss when reading more specifically classical texts. Dante draws on so many ancient poems and myths, so I was enormously excited to read it.

thumb_IMG_4614_1024

Circles of Hell is taken from Dante’s epic poem Inferno, which is followed by Purgatorio and Paradiso, altogether forming his Divine Comedy.

As the three books imply, this was not going to make for jolly reading, which, it must be said, I was rather looking forward to. I relish a misery read.

Dante was a thirteenth-centry Italian poet and was inspired by the Greek poet Homer, who wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey, and Virgil, the Roman poet who wrote The Virgil.

In the Circles of Hell, the poet transforms himself into a character, who in turn is led through the circles of hell with Virgil as his personal tour guide. Please keep all arms and legs inside the moving vehicle at all times etc.

In the first canto of this Classic, called Gates of Hell, Virgil explains to us that those who are sent to the circles of hell “were void alike of honour and ill fame.”

Each circle behind these gates are intended for a particular type of sinner, with each specific fate designed to reflect that sin. Specifically, Virgil leads Dante and readers to pass through the circles of the lustful, the gluttonous, the wrathful, thieves and traitors, to name but a few.

As they are incredibly detailed and at times a little ambiguous, I thought perhaps I would touch on some stand out moments in Circles of Hell.

In the second circle, intended for the lustful, Dante sees some favourite faces from Classical myth – Helen, Paris, Achilles, Dido, Cleopatra to name a few.

One of the damned tells Dante

“There is no sorrow greater / than, in times of misery, to hold at heart / the memory of happiness.”

I really lingered over this. I think this is wonderfully melancholic and very perceptive. There are instances when life seems truly blue and happy memories cannot comfort but rather do the reverse. We all enjoy a good miserable wallow on occasion.

In the third circle, for the gluttonous, we meet Cerberus, another popular mythical creature:

“Cerberus, weird and monstrously cruel, / barks from his triple throats in cur-like yowls / over the heads of those who lie their drowned. / His eyes vermilion, beard a greasy black, / his belly broad, his fingers all sharp-nailed, / he mauls and skins, then hacks in four, these souls.”

Three-headed Cerberus makes Fluffy from Harry Potter look like Lassie.

But Cerberus isn’t the only creature to reside in the underworld. There are harpies, which are

“human from neck to brow, / talons for feet, plumage around their paunches, / they sing from these uncanny trees their songs of woe.”

*Shudder*. These are not the woodland creatures that I know and love. Take this charming stag that, this past weekend, I had the pleasure of meeting. He settled not two metres from our picnic for a lethargic break, like a loyal dog.

thumb_IMG_4816_1024

‘So what’s the appeal of visiting Hell?’ I hear you ask. ‘Why would Dante be crazy enough to want to visit these monsters?’

Well, friends, he does encounter Cerberus and co., but Dante has the luxury of making a passing visit. Like us, the reader, and unlike the pour souls who now reside in fiery inferno for all eternity, he can leave.

Plus, he also has the opportunity of talking to the eternally damned, which is pretty cool.

For example, in the circle for thieves, one chap says:

“It pisses me right off … / far more than being ripped away from life, that you have got to see me in this misery.”

I could go on and on. Blood, tears, snakes, monsters, misery, shame, horror, slime, slobber, violence. The Circles of Hell has it all.

But Dante, in turn led by Virgil, leads us away and back in to the light.

The closing words of this Little Black Classic are my favourites, possibly of any of the Classics I have read thus far.

“Now we came out, and once more saw the stars.”

And thus, on the UK’s August Bank Holiday Monday, I set out for the iconic National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, one of my favourite places to London. It’s the beating heart of the city, with the Mall, Westminster, Soho, Piccadilly etc. branching off it like pulsing veins.

In contrast to the sunny day in which I read Circles of Hell, the bank holiday was dreary and wet. It poured and it poured. Constantly. A subtle indication that Autumn had arrived.

And so, like a true Brit, I headed out in to the rain with a sniffle and eternal optimism in tow… “It looks like it’s trying to brighten up.”

It did at least allow for this photo, in which I channelled my inner Gene Kelly. I had ‘Singing in the Rain’ stuck in my head for the rest of the day, much to the dismay of everyone around me.

IMG_1212 copy

The Gallery is spectacular to explore. Like yours truly, you don’t need to know anything about art, you can just stroll leisurely before heading for a reviving cup of tea in the cafe.

thumb_IMG_4546_1024

It seemed appropriate to head out in search of art. My sister, who you hopefully remember from The Beautifull Cassandra, studied Art History at uni.

Mum says that with my sister’s art knowledge and my love of books, new worlds have been opened up to her, which is a lovely thought. It certainly does mean that I’ve been lucky to see a lot of art in recent years with my sister, who can point out things I wouldn’t ordinarily notice in a painting and explain it so eloquently that even I, a total simpleton, can understand.

With her and my future brother-in-law (!) in mind, I wondered the halls of the Gallery, passing all of its treasures.

Here I found Bartolomé Bermejo’s Saint Michael Triumphs Over the Devil, and turned into one of those irritating people who look at life through a camera lens, rather than just enjoying the exhibit for what it is.

thumb_IMG_4576_1024

It must be said, Saint Michael looks pretty calm for someone about to plunge a sword through a monster. Heavenly, ethereal, angelic – or a bit lifeless? I was instead drawn to the the Devil, a bat-like creature that leers and laughs at St Michael and visitors of the National Gallery.

thumb_IMG_4579_1024 copy

Prior to visiting the Gallery, I had earmarked two other paintings that I wanted to visit with Dante in mind. Which is where I come to the delay in this blog post…

Alas the National Gallery has been undergoing ongoing and indefinite room closures in retaliation to the threat of privatisation of public services. In a nutshell, an outside firm has been tasked with managing hundreds of Gallery employees, and there is a threat that employees who don’t transfer may lose their jobs.

Many staff have worked at the Gallery for decades, and so it’s a pretty huge deal to possibly have their jobs sold off.

Due to this, I checked the Gallery’s website every day for a week for more information, hoping the two rooms I needed would be opened to the public. I work on the Strand, a stone’s throw from Trafalgar Square and the Gallery. (Yes, I am very very lucky. No that’s not sarcasm, I truly am lucky!)

I eventually emailed the Gallery, explaining that I wanted to publish my blog pronto and was waiting on these paintings being revealed to the public.

Within 24 hours I had a reply, and one of the wardens (who has worked at the Gallery for some 12 years) very kindly unlocked the two rooms that I needed so that I could take some photos.

I was taken behind the scenes of the gallery, through motionless, echoing hallways and giant locked doors, masterpieces looking down at me from their painted walls.

thumb_IMG_4592_1024

thumb_IMG_4570_1024

Here I was finally able to see Luca Giordano’s Mythological Scene with the Rape of Proserpina, which features our three-headed friend Cerberus.

thumb_IMG_4587_1024

Needless to say my pictures don’t do the artworks any justice. But, if I’m honest, Cerberus here seemed a little pathetic compared to Dante’s depiction. This guy with the staff looks like he’s throwing the monster a treat.

thumb_IMG_4585_1024

It was an epic painting – huge. But I was rather underwhelmed by Cerberus.

We then headed for David Teniers the Younger’s The Rich Man Being Led to Hell, a much smaller painting in contrast to the previous but I found it far more compelling.

thumb_IMG_4600_1024

It’s hard to take your eyes off the struggle between the fat, well-dressed rich man and the smirking devil. But if you look around them, there are strange wide-eyed toads and and lizards, who along with a band seem to be goading them along into hell’s fire.

I found it difficult to leave – it was like the devil was drawing me into his lair.

Eventually I did leave and, like Dante, was pleased to once more see the stars.

Thank you to my brother-in-law-to-be Matt for choosing this Classic! Matt, please speak to Katy for far more educated artistic thoughts.

Next time I will be reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Old Nurse’s Story.

thumb_IMG_4842_1024

No. 27: The nightingales are drunk, Hafez

I’d like to introduce you to Hafez. Hafez is a poet from fourteenth-century Persia. His interests include mythology, nature and women. He loves a social gathering, particularly if there is wine involved, though I’m sure he won’t mind my saying he’s no connoisseur. He thinks aloud, particularly in the battles of his heart, and is an argumentative drunk.

IMG_4069

Are you sold? You should be. Hafez’s poetry made for brilliant Bank Holiday reading.

The tone is pretty much set in the second poem, which begins:

“Ah, god forbid that I relinquish wine”

It was clear Hafez and I were going to have some fun together.

My first impression of the poet was that he is, essentially, a party boy. These poems are, for the most part, based around Hafez drinking, his creative juices pumping as he drinks.

Amid his musings about life, love and religion, he demands “Bring wine!” and, on one occasion admits “I’m drunk; it’s true!”

Hafez won’t let anyone ruin the party and tell him to sober up, demanding:

“Go mind your own business, preacher! what’s all This hullaballo?”

Despite there being some 700 years age difference between the two of us, I felt an affinity with Hafez. I was surprised that he could be so unashamedly drunk and proud and honest, despite there being great distance between the two of us. Chaucer, another fourteenth-century poet and a lot closer to home for me, being associated with London and Kent, wasn’t so forthright and personable in his writing.

Hafez’s poetry is littered with references to him enjoying a glass of wine and being drunk. I don’t exaggerate – every other poem mentions booze.

But there is another side to Hafez, a darkness…

“What does life give me in the end but sorrow?”

This is the first line of a four-line poem. It’s so short and final, giving a real bipolar edge to his writing. My stomach dropped when I read it and I flicked through to the following pages to learn whether Hafez found some shred of joy once more. I’m pleased to report he did.

He doesn’t seem to do anything by halves. He’s mouthy, ecstatic, drunk, romantic, sweet, sad, bad. He is very human and I could quote so much of his poetry here because it’s brilliant. You should go and read it – you’ll find a real friend in Hafez.

Love and wine seem to be his lifeblood, his religion almost. He worships the two in equal measure, and is equally infuriated by both, which I’m confident most of us can relate to.

Despite Hafez’s moments of melancholy, his poetry filled me with such joy. Life doesn’t seem quite so bad when Hafez leans in with a glass of wine in hand.

And so, to the celebration. And it did feel like a celebration, unlike when treading the pebbles for Hardy’s previously discussed poetry, which was mournful, poignant and reflective.

After a busy Bank Holiday sightseeing, my man and I followed Hafez’s style and indulged in a bottle of wine.

It was a rather special bottle, dating 1990, the year we were both born. Tim’s Grandpa, is Swiss and lives in a beautiful town called Montreux (also Freddie Mercury’s preferred place of residence). He purchased a hundred or so bottles in the year of Tim’s birth, as he did for all of his grandchildren’s birth years.

We visited Tim’s Grandpa at Christmas last year. Tim plucked a couple of these precious, dusty bottles from his Grandpa’s cellar, which is conveniently situated beneath his ‘caveau’. It’s like something from a book, this caveau. Down a flight of stairs you wouldn’t know existed, is an imposing wooden door. Behind this is a large room, the caveau, which can sit sixty or so on high days and holidays. A lot of the furniture was crafted by Tim’s Grandpa, and tools, jugs and cupboards are mounted across the walls – plenty to gaze at while you swirl your glass. A small kitchen sits at the other end of the room, where raclette is prepared and empty wine bottles are discarded.

Here, Tim and his Grandpa adjust an artefact’s position, and below is my favourite display of sewing machines…

IMG_3684

IMG_3682

Tim and I tucked into the 1990 bottle, intended for special occasions, with some Continental nibbles on the balcony of my flat after a busy day sightseeing.

IMG_4060

It was idyllic. We sat, quaffed our wine, and I recited some of my preferred extracts from Hafez’s collection.

I am joking. We did sit and quaff wine. But most of our attention focused on a group of hoodied men who were being questioned by two policemen in the park opposite my flat.

Welcome to East London.

IMG_4080IMG_4065IMG_4061

Despite this, and the threat of light drizzle, we sat and sipped at our wine. And the drizzle did hold off. There’s no denying that it was very pleasant, and we felt rather smug.

Two drunk nightingales. I‘m sure Hafez would have approved.

Thank you Dad for picking this Little Black Classic.  I raise my glass to you, and to Tim’s Grandpa also. Next week I will be blogging about The Voyage of Sir Francis Drake Around the Whole Globe.

IMG_4043

No. 14: Woman much missed, Thomas Hardy

I was pretty excited about reading Woman much missed, being a huge fan of Hardy’s novels.

Purely coincidentally, I picked up a copy of Far From the Madding Crowd last week, a book I read some ten years ago when I first discovered and fell in love with Victorian literature. A colleague spotted me clutching the book, published in tandem with the film set for release this year (with Carey Mulligan in the fiery role of Bathsheba). We soon found ourselves gushing over Hardy’s brilliance, quoting favourite lines from his works and analysing TV adaptations (we agreed Gemma Arterton and Eddie Redmayne as Tess and Angel in Tess of the d’Urbervilles was particularly brilliant casting).

Hardy was a man caught between Victorian industrialisation and early twentieth century war. He’s rather out on a limb, I would argue, and his literature echoes that. Perhaps he is most loved for taking us away from city life to the harsh, poignant realities of rural life.

What I really like about Hardy is that he writes real, flawed male and, importantly, female characters in a time where women weren’t really able to have a voice of there own. His confused, cruel, victimised, feisty women are a cut above the either virginal or haggish women that Dickens was alone preoccupied with.

Hardy’s female characters are, if you will pardon the pun, hardy.

As a result, I was keen to read the poetry collected together in this Little Black Classic, written in honour of his deceased wife. What did Hardy miss about her? Why did he fall in love with her? Who was the woman who would walk through the pages with me?

IMG_3930

A couple of things really struck me about Mrs Hardy.

In the poem ‘Without Ceremony’ Hardy describes how “my dear” would “vanish without a word,” suddenly leaving the room without explanation, and concludes that, now she has passed and he misses her, he will adopt her attitude that “‘Good-bye is not worthwhile!'”

I found this very touching, particularly because this quirk of hers would really irritate me. As someone who always justifies my reason for leaving a room, however menial (normally explaining that I’m just nipping to the loo to my poor colleagues), I don’t think I ever exit silently. How rude! Perhaps it did once drive Hardy to distraction, but his celebrating this quirk of hers in his poetry is rather lovely.

In ‘Lament’ Hardy essentially describes his wife as a keen party-goer – whether it was a lawn party or dinner party. She loved the change of seasons, and Christmas, and the celebrations both brought. She would have been “bright-hatted and loved” and “Her smiles would have shone With welcomings.” It sounds as though Mrs Hardy was very sociable, welcoming both the varying celebrations that each season brought and welcoming her guests with equal relish.

It was clear that Mr and Mrs Hardy shared a love for the countryside and the sea. The poems are littered with these images and there are so many references to rain. I’m not sure whether this is a creation of his mourning or whether the West Country was unfortunate to suffer a few years of awful weather but, heavens, there is an awful lot of rain in Hardy’s Wessex.

In Hardy’s poetry, Mrs Hardy almost seems to be attracted to the sea…

“I found her out there On a slope few see, That falls westwardly To the salt-edged air Where the ocean breaks…”

“O the opal and the sapphire of that wandering western sea, The woman riding high above with bright hair flapping free – The woman whom I loved so, and who loyally loved me.”

These quotes are taken from two separate poems. The image of Mrs Hardy, windswept by the sea stayed with me, although I still struggled to make sense of who she was. She just didn’t jump off the pages for me in these poems. Really, what was entirely spelt out, was Hardy’s grief.  Here is, very obviously, a man in mourning, desperate to be in her place instead.

It was clear to me that I needed to head to the seaside, in order to have my own hair flapping free and taste that salt-edged air. This was no hardship, as I do like to be beside the seaside*.

(*sung, with foot tapping)

I decided to read up more on Mrs Hardy beforehand so that I could take her with me to the scene that she seems to favour, certainly in Hardy’s poetry. I was very surprised and, truth be told, rather upset by what I found. The woman of Hardy’s poetry and the woman I read about didn’t seem to be one and the same.

Emma Glifford was from Plymouth (my Mum’s hometown) and married Thomas Hardy when she was 34, which seems rather late in life for a Victorian woman to marry. After twenty years, their marriage became strained, possibly because they were unable to have children, possibly because Jude the Obscure came between them, having many poignant parallels with their own life together.

They began to spend time apart and Hardy met another woman. Emma became a recluse while Hardy started a new life with his mistress. She died at the age of 72, and amongst her possessions Hardy found a diary, essentially a burn book, listing all of Hardy’s wrongs against Emma.

A seed of guilt grew and grew, and Hardy never forgave himself for the unhappy life he had created for his wife. Hence this collection of terribly sad poems.

Needless to say I have paraphrased this enormously; there are many more complexities to their lives that my words won’t do justice.

With this in mind I headed for Dungeness, a place so eerie it could be the perfect setting for tragic poetry and ghostly figures from literature. It also has a nuclear power station. Ooh er. A hotspot indeed!

IMG_3908

Dungeness is, admittedly, on the English Channel, whereas Hardy was linked to the West Country and the North Atlantic. But I am one woman with one salary, and the West Country was a long way to travel for a brisk seaside walk.

Appropriately, it was a miserable, overcast day with plenty of drizzle. Hardy would have approved. Consequently, I didn’t tread the pebbles or approach the water as much as I would have liked. I was also full of fish and chips and although a good helping of sea air did me good, my heavy, cold body and wet hair craved a good cup of tea at home.

IMG_3915

Dungeness is an important place to my family. We make an annual trip to the scene (the UK’s only desert, did you know) and revel in it’s weird, desolate atmosphere.

There is something very compelling about it. It seemed like a good place to take Hardy and his wife. Sure enough, I could picture her, holding on to her hat as she strode along the shingle, a dot on the bleak landscape.

I feel very sad for Mrs Hardy, and Thomas Hardy too. His poetry clearly includes a lot of poetic license, his guilt translating to grief throughout. Their story could almost be found between the pages of one of Hardy’s own novels.

Thank you so much Poppy for picking Woman much missed. No. 14 because we became friends when we were 14 years old! Next time I will be blogging about The Beautifull Cassandra.

IMG_3870