Friday, July 15, 2011

From a Bus Window in Central Ohio, Just Before a Thunder Shower

One of the James Wright poems in The Branch Will Not Break that I didn't mention in my previous post is 'From a Bus Window in Central Ohio, Just Before a Thunder Shower'.  The view through a window provides a natural frame for a 'landscape poem', although if a fixed point of view is required that  hammock at William Duffy's farm would do just as well.  Looking out of the bus in central Ohio, James Wright saw 'cribs loaded with roughage huddle together / before the north clouds', poplars, silver maples leaves and an old farmer calling 'a hundred black-and-white Holsteins / from the clover field.'  It would be great to compile an anthology of 'window poetry' like this, and from my landscape perspective I would be tempted to group them according to what was being seen: storms, sunsets, industrial landscapes, rural scenes, or just some cropped fragment of a city or the slowly moving branches of a tree. A more interesting arrangement might reflect the nature of the frame itself: windows open and closed, windows in castles and palaces, in suburban houses, office buildings, hospital wards, school rooms, prison cells, or the windows of trains, aeroplanes, buses, still or in motion.  A third version of the anthology would order poems according to the nature of the viewer: their identity, their attitude and their mood, projected onto the landscape beyond the window.

In his classic 1955 essay, 'The Open Window and the Storm-Tossed Boat: An Essay in the Iconography of Romanticism' Lorenz Eitner describes a favourite theme in Romantic literature: 'the poet at the window surveys a distant landscape and is troubled by a desire to escape from his narrow existence into the world spread out before him'  The example he gives is Eichendorff's poem 'Longing' where the golden stars and sound of a distant post-horn make the poet's heart ache to travel out into the summer night.  'The window is like a threshold and at the same time a barrier.  Through it nature, the world, the active life beckon, but the artist remains imprisoned, not unpleasantly, in domestic snugness ... This juxtaposition of the very close and the far-away adds a peculiar tension to the sense of distance, more poignant than could be achieved in pure landscape.  "Eveything at a distance," wrote Novalis, "turns into poetry: distant mountains, distant people, distant events; all become romantic."'

Eitner's essay was an inspiration for the Met's recent exhibition Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century.  According to the exhibition notes, 'Caspar David Friedrich's two sepia drawings of the river Elbe of 1805–6 (View from the Artist's Studio, Window on the Right and View from the Artist's Studio, Window on the Left) inaugurated the Romantic motif of the open window. Unlike the stark balance between the darkened interior and the pale landscape rendered in these views, the artists who followed Friedrich created gentler versions of the motif. Their windows open onto flat plains in Sweden, parks in German spas, or rooftops in Copenhagen. Artists' studios overlook houses in Dresden or Turin, bucolic Vienna suburbs, or Roman cityscapes saturated with light. In several sitting rooms offering urban views of Berlin, the interiors evoke stage sets to satisfy the artist's delightful mania [sic!] with perspective and reflections. ... Even a barren landscape, when framed in a window, can be transformed into an enthralling scene. Some artists recorded actual sites—Copenhagen's harbor, the river Elbe near Dresden, the Bay of Naples—while others invented, or even largely blocked, the views from their studios or painted them in the chill of moonlight.' 

Caspar David Friedrich, Woman at a Window, 1822

One of the paintings referred to by Lorenz Eitner was Friedrich's Woman at a Window, in which the artist's wife looks out at the world beyond the shutters.  This painting was in the first of the Met's the four exhibition rooms, dedicated to interiors with figures; the second room displayed images of artists' studios.  These suggest another category for an imaginary poetry anthology: domestic scenes in which the window view is just one element.  And when you think about it such interior spaces could feature in a whole companion anthology where the position of the observer is reversed, to be on the outside, looking in.  As Charles Baudelaire says in his prose poem 'Les Fenêtres', 'Ce qu'on peut voir au soleil est toujours moins intéressant que ce qui se passe derrière une vitre. Dans ce trou noir ou lumineux vit la vit, rêve la vie, souffre la vie. (What we can see out in the sunlight is always less interesting than what we can perceive taking place behind a pane of windowglass. In that pit, in that blackness or brightness, life is being lived, life is suffering, life is dreaming.... )'


Paul Ringgold said...

Thanks for the wonderful post/essay. Another genre I'd like to suggest is start, Colette's "De ma fenêtre" (a window to Paris under the Occupation).

I greatly enjoy your blog. Thanks, and keep it up!

Plinius said...

Thanks. Yes, maybe a wider literary anthology would be good. There's the first part of 'To the Lighthouse' for example, entitled 'The Window'. Here in London it threatened rain yesterday and we cancelled our planned outing - I found myself cast as Mr Ramsay, looking out of the window and pronouncing "it won't be fine" (and I was right - it most certainly wasn't.)

If you moved away from the simple act of looking into or out of a window there are other possibilities: descriptions of stained glass windows, meditations on broken windows, tower blocks made of nothing but windows, the distant light in a window at the end of a journey, windows as a means of breaking in, or of escape. And perhaps there might even be room for that Lancashire poet George Formby, composer of 'When I'm Cleaning Windows' and 'Mr. Wu's A Window Cleaner Now.'

Mike C. said...

Do you know Tischbein's sketch of Goethe, seen from behind leaning out of a window in Rome? It's one of my favourite images, somehow an evocation of perfect happiness.

It had never occurred to me before that this was an image with a genre.


Plinius said...

Yes it's a lovely sketch and the possibility of being able to open a window and look out at Rome does indeed seem like a version of the ideal of happiness. Italy seems to have been particularly powerful for German writers and artists (see my Eichendorff post that follows this one).

Keats dreamed of an ideal window - he wrote to his sister: “I should like the window to open onto the Lake of Geneva, - and there I’d sit and read all day like the picture of somebody reading.”