Friday, May 10, 2024

Boating on Ruoye stream in the spring

The Government of Zhejiang Province have recently launched the Poetry Road Cultural Belt. There is a fascinating article on the literary sources for this, ‘Spatial patterns, causes and characteristics of the cultural landscape of the Road of Tang Poetry based on text mining: take the Road of Tang Poetry in Eastern Zhejiang as an example’ by Xuesong Xi, Xingrun An, Guangming Zhang & Shifan Liang. They analyse 1593 poems written in Eastern Zhejiang by 451 poets of the Tang Dynasty. These relate to 79 places ‘which are classified into four categories, including natural land-scapes, residences of celebrities, Buddhist temples and Taoist temples, and administrative zones.’ The authors find 47 natural landscapes covered in the poems, ‘of which 36 are related to mountains and 11 to water landscape, such as Mount Tiantai, Mount Wozhou, Mount Wanwei, Jinghu Lake, Ruoye River and Shanxi River’. I've reproduced their map below.

The ‘celebrity houses’ the poems refer to are Lanting (the ‘Orchard Pavilion’ associated with Wang Xizhi, who I've mentioned on this blog before) and the houses of the politician and poet He Zhizhang (c. 659-744), Zheng Qian (a Han Dynasty diplomat) and Yan Wei (a brave Three Kingdoms period general). The Tang poems also reference the ‘folk-cultural landscape’: ‘the perch and Brasenia of Eastern Zhejiang, the Shan paper and wine of Shaoxing, the famous tea of Eastern Zhejiang from the Shanxi River and the Mount Tiantai, the various kinds of valuable medicinal herbs produced in the Mount Tiantai, and the rattan of Yuezhong, the Huading Rattan, which was preferred by the literati.’ 

I feel I should now conclude by mentioning some actual Tang Dynasty landscape poetry from Zhejiang. However, the study only covers the area south of the Fuchun River, so excludes Wuxing, where the poet-monk Jiaoran had his tea farm, Duqing where Meng Jiao lived, and the great city of Hangzhou, where Bai Juyi (as governor) built a causeway and Meng Haoran wrote a poem about watching the tidal bore (maybe I'll write about this natural phenomenon in a future post). I could talk about Hanshan (Cold Mountain) and his Buddhist friends in the Tiantai mountains, but they have featured here before. So I'll go for Qiwu Qian (692-749), whose 'Boating on Ruoye stream in the spring' is in the famous anthology of Three Hundred Tang Poems (a fraction of the number analysed by Xuesong Xi et al!)

Qiwu Qian was a friend of Wang Wei, who wrote a poem immortalising his failure to get into the civil service, 'To Qiwu Qian Bound Home After Failing an Examination'. Ruoye River is at the foot of the Kuaiji Mountain. As Stephen Owen says (in The Great Age of Chinese Poetry), Qiwu Qian's poem traces ‘the oldest thematic pattern in Chinese landscape poetry: the poet moves through the landscape, attaining enlightenment or understanding the futility of public life.’ Qiwu’s boat is blown by the evening breezes. ‘Mist over pools flies billowing, rolling, and the moon of the forest lowers behind me.'

Sunday, May 05, 2024

A tin flash in the sun-dazzle


I'm going to write about landscape in this book, but it needs a bit of explanation first. Here's the New Directions publisher's blurb:

Rummaging through his papers in 1958, Ezra Pound came across a cache of notebooks dating back to the summer of 1912, when as a young man he had walked the troubadour landscape of southern France. Pound had been fascinated with the poetry of medieval Provence since his college days. His experiments with the complex lyric forms of Arnaut Daniel, Bertran de Born, and others were included in his earliest books of poems; his scholarly pursuits in the field found their way into The Spirit of Romance (1910); and the troubadour mystique was to become a resonant motif of the Cantos. In the course of transcribing and emending the text of “Walking Tour 1912,” editor Richard Sieburth retraced Pound’s footsteps along the roads to the troubadour castles. “What this peripatetic editing process… revealed,” he writes, “was a remarkably readable account of a journey in search of the vanished voices of Provence that at the same time chronicled Pound’s gradual discovery of himself as a modernist poet.”

This transition towards Imagism was leading Pound to look for precise observation of nature in the best troubadour poetry. In Sieburth's introduction he describes Pound's attempts to read their poems in elements of the landscape he passed through. 

Ambling down the valley of the Dronne near Arnaut Daniel's birthplace at Ribérac, he verified the vernal vegetation of the countryside against vocabulary of the poet's cansos. Observing the rhythm of "cusps & hills, of prospects opened & shut" as the road climbed northward toward Mareuil, he wondered whether the structure of Arnaut's sestinas might not derive from patterns of recurrence in the local terrain. Having fought the wind and rain through the greater part of his journey, he reflected that he now "found a deal more force in certain lines & stanzas than I had ever expected ... if we consider them as sung by men to whom the condition of the weather was a necessary concomitant of every action & enjoyment... the prelude of weather in nearly every canzon becomes self evident, it is the actual reflection." (Three decades later, exposed to the elements at Pisa, the full force of these observations would hit home.)

Pound also had a theory about troubadour topography: that Bertran de Born's 'Lady Since You Care Nothing For Me', about a composite ideal love with features taken from the fairest beauties of Provence, actually disguised a military plan to take the castles where these ladies lived. Sieburth suspects that 'Pound was in fact unconsciously projecting his own private scenarios of phallic beleaguerment and grandeur onto the landscape of his troubadour alter-ego'. 

The notes Pound made are fragmentary - readable but hardly polished travel writing. They nevertheless contain flashes of imagistic description that anticipate the Cantos. Sieburth quotes one example, where light on the river Dordogne, 'a band of bluish metal with rippled chevrons in the shadows', looks forward to this phrase from Canto 2: 'There is a wine-red glow in the shallows, / a tin flash in the sun-dazzle.' 

The book also includes three poems from 1915 that were directly inspired by the walk - one of these, 'Provincia Deserta' provides 'the first occurrence in Pound's poetry of that rarefied, virtually Chinese landscape of mountains and valleys which provides the elevated topography of the paradiso of the late Cantos.' Sieburth quotes lines from this poem that refer to the town of Foix in the Pyrenees and I'll conclude here with some of the original notes Pound made in 1912:

To Foix by night...

We are come again to a place where the waters run swiftly & where we have always this chinese background. The faint grey of the mountains...

I had at last my plan of starting late in the day so the hills were full of cloud & mist & there were bright & dim colours upon them. I went into this Coliseum of hills with Foix like Caesar's stand behind me, but with a veiled light over it & scarcely visible. I went out the other end where a great sheet of rock juts thru the quarry, out & into a paler basin that faced me with light emerald & pearlish shadows. Then you go up & over till the sky shows blue before you. It is not the rd. of the diligence. One may lie on the earth & possess it & feel the world below one.

Of related interest:

'Ezra the Troubadour' - an article on Pound's travels and poems that includes Sieburth's map.

'Poundian Itineraries': An attempt to map Pound's later 1919 walking tour (and another article on his third walking tour in 1923).

Sunday, April 21, 2024

The Fountain of Arethusa

 There is sweet music in that pine tree's whisper...

- Theocritus, Idyll 1, trans. Anthony Verity

Last week I was in Syracuse, the home of Theocritus and, by extension, pastoral poetry. The first of his Idylls begins with two comparisons of nature and music. The words above are spoken in the poem's opening line by Thyrsis, praising the music of a goatherd's pan pipes. The goatherd replies 'shepherd, your song sounds sweeter than the water tumbling / over there from the high rock.' Thyrsis is persuaded to sing The Sufferings of Daphnis, the lament of a dying Sicilian cowherd (the reasons for his death are left mysterious). I have described here before Virgil's references to Daphnis in his Eclogues, and also the ancient novel Daphnis and Chloe, although in that story Daphnis tends goats on Lesbos. Re-reading Theocritus after visiting Sicily reminded me that many of his poems are set in the wider Greek world, although Idyll 16, is addressed to the tyrant of Syracuse, Hieron II. Both Idyll 16 and Idyll 1 refer to Arethusa, a spring that you can still visit on the island of Ortygia (the old centre of Syracuse). It is just be the sea and walled in to create a pond inhabited by fish and ducks.  


In Greek mythology, Arethusa was a nymph who fled from her home in Arcadia, emerging eventually as a fresh water fountain on Ortygia. The predatory male in this story was Alpheus, a river god, who pursued her until she prayed to be transformed into a cloud. But Alpheus wouldn't let up and, perspiring with fear, she turned into a stream and flowed through the sea until she reached safety in Syracuse. Ovid called her Alpheius - the name of a Greek river (it is said that a wooden cup thrown into the Alfeiós will eventually turn up in the Spring of Arethusa). Virgil alludes to this story when Aeneas reaches Sicily: 'an island lies over against wave-washed Plemyrium, / stretched across a Sicilian bay: named Ortygia by men of old. / The story goes that Alpheus, a river of Elis, forced /a hidden path here under the sea, and merges / with the Sicilian waters of your fountain Arethusa.' Virgil addresses his tenth Eclogue to Arethusa and refers to the story of Daphnis told by Theocritus, relocating the setting from Sicily to (an imaginary) Arcadia.

John Martin, Alpheus and Arethusa, 1832


Unsurprisingly Arethusa gets frequently mentioned in later pastoral poetry, right up to Wordsworth, who wonders in The Prelude whether 'that fountain be in truth no more'. Milton had referred to it in his elegy Lycidas, along with Mincius, a river in Italy that features in Virgil's Eclogue 7. 'O fountain Arethuse, and thou honour'd flood, / Smooth-sliding Mincius, crown'd with vocal reeds, / That strain I heard was of a higher mood.' But Samuel Johnson was not impressed with poetry of this kind. 'It is not to be considered as the effusion of real passion; for passion runs not after remote allusions and obscure opinions. Passion plucks no berries from the myrtle and ivy, nor calls upon Arethuse and Mincius, nor tells of rough satyrs and fauns with cloven heel. Where there is leisure for fiction there is little grief.'

Wednesday, April 03, 2024

A Tale of the Wind

Mentioning Bert Haanstra, a Dutch documentary maker, in my last post reminded me of the great Joris Ivens. I referred to him back in 2008 when I wrote about the city symphony films being made in the late 1920s. Rain (Regen, 1929) displayed an interest in the elements that persisted all his life. The image above of Ivens on a mountain in China is from A Tale of the Wind, which was released sixty years later, three months before he died. Derek Jarman was an admirer and mentions it three times in Modern Nature:

  • 'Before we turned in: a ravishing film by Joris Ivens, at 90 chasing the elusive wind in China. The most refined work, it made the Hitchcock season look dreadful.'
  • 'So late at night. I weep for the garden so lonely in the shingle desert. Dear Jean [Cocteau], am I the only one who, besides you, has funded a film on his name? Joris Ivens' perfect film of the wind? So few escape to tread this path. Hedges of money, fixed stars.'
  • 'Joris Ivens walking breathless into the desert to find the wind. Asthmatic.'  

Like Jarman and Ivens I have always had asthma and love the idea of the aged director setting off to discover the secret of breathing in the rhythm of the autumn wind. Ivens was born in 1898, so was almost as old as cinema itself and A Tale of the Wind includes a fantasy sequence based on Georges Méliès’A Trip to the Moon (1902), as well as clips from a couple of his own films made in the thirties. When Jarman saw it he was forty-seven, almost half as young as Ivens, HIV positive and starting to suffer from the respiratory illnesses that would restrict his film making. In Modern Nature he describes listening to the wind at Dungeness and storms rattling the old walls of his cottage: 'a wild wind roared through the night, chasing sleep to the edge of dawn.' That morning he woke to 'crystalline sunlight, all the dark humours blown away by the wind. The crocuses open quickly, bright yellow petals spread wide open at noon. The purple and white in the shadows. The snowdrops are out; and before the sun disappears round the house the first daffodil has opened.'

There is an excellent article on A Tale of the Wind by Jonathan Rosenbaum, written in 1992. He concludes by describing its final scene. 

Still later, trekking across mountains and desert with his camera and sound crew in search of the elusive wind, he is told by a Chinese peasant woman, perhaps a witch, that she can draw a magic figure in the sand that will beckon the wind out of hiding. She needs, however, two electric fans, and these are promptly sent for and delivered to the site by a camel, leading to the ecstatic miracle that forms the film’s climax. Like the Mélièsian warrior sequence, it is yet another instance of folklore and technology, archaeology and fantasy being brought into a sublime proximity, even a communication with each another. It is Joris Ivens’s message to — or is it from? — the 21st century, if only we are brave and alert enough to listen.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Mirror of Holland

This morning I walked along our local canal, with bright sunny weather creating reflections of the barges and bridges, the buildings of Hoxton and Haggerston, a few trees and many joggers pounding down the path. This evening I watched Mirror of Holland, made up entirely of shots of canal reflections, which won the short film Palme d'Or in 1951. It begins with the windmill below and a young lad who bends down to see the image the 'right way round' - the rest of the film continues in this way, with the reflections turned into water-blurred moving images of farms, gabled houses, a church tower, locks and canal boats. The director Bert Haanstra went on to make many other documentary films - his other big success was based on another reflective medium, Glass (1958).

Mirror of Holland put me in mind of Haanstra's Dutch contemporary M.C. Escher, whose compositions like Puddle and Three Worlds are interested in how water can contain a landscape. There are some abstract moments in the film that look like Escher's Rippled Surface which also dates from 1950. Of course there are reflections in Dutch Golden Age paintings too and you could probably make a version of Haanstra's film by montaging these together - the example below is in Jan Van de Heyden's Country House on the Vliet near Delft (1665). 

Friday, March 15, 2024

The purple glow of evening

Carl Gustav Carus, Woman on a Balcony, 1824
(used as the cover for OUP edition of The Mysteries of Udolpho).

The Mysteries of Udolpho is one of those famous novels like Wuthering Heights or Frankenstein that I've read with certain prior expectations, only to be surprised by how much else there is beyond the story I imagined it would be. One reason is that, like many people, I came to Ann Radcliffe's Gothic bestseller with a caricature in mind, formed by Jane Austen's parody Northanger Abbey (a book I quoted here back in 2008). But it is also a novel designed to frustrate your expectations, with slow sections and plot digressions that must be read before its numerous mysteries are explained. The obvious reaction on putting it down is that this 670 page novel could have been an exciting 200 page story if it had stuck to the Castle of Udolpho and not allowed its heroine an anticlimactic and relatively easy escape from the villain Montoni. But if you are interested in landscape and the way it was appreciated there is much of interest before and after Emily is incarcerated in the Apennines.

Ann Radcliffe's reference points are the standard ones in Britain at the time:

  • The Mysteries of Udolpho is greatly influenced by Edmund Burke's theory of the Sublime and the term itself is frequently used. Descriptions of mountain landscapes, the great gloomy castle and Montoni's fierce face are clearly designed to evoke feelings of delightful terror. 
  • The perilous paths Emily travels are straight out of Salvator Rosa. Banditti and murderous armed men are not just figments of her imagination. The novel is set in the sixteenth century but a 'scene of barrenness' interrupted by 'the spreading branches of the larch and cedar, which threw their gloom over the cliff, or athwart the torrent that rolled in the vale' was 'such a scene as Salvator would have chosen, had he then existed'.
  • The novel's chapters begin with quotations from poets and it is no surprise to see James Thomson's The Seasons featuring along with Shakespeare, Milton and others. Verse epigraphs are still standard practice (Thomas Halliday uses them effectively in his recent book on prehistoric landscapes, Otherlands) but Radcliffe pioneered this technique. 

Like other writers from the Romantic period, Radcliffe's way of viewing nature was influenced by William Gilpin and she had followed him to the Lake District in search of picturesque scenery. Her heroine meets and falls in love with a free-spirited young chevalier encountered while he is on the kind of walking tour alone in the mountains that Coleridge and Wordsworth would later enjoy. As the OUP edition's editor Bonamy Dobrée says in his notes 'it is surely no accident that Radcliffe's villains do not care for landscape'. 

Because Radcliffe had never at this stage set foot in the south of France or Italy, her descriptive passages are based on those of travel writers like Hester Thrale. Some readers might dislike the idea of landscape imagined from a distance and through the prism of other books in this way, but there are moments where The Mysteries of Udolpho reminded me of the dream-like journeys I have praised here before in books by Kafka and Eichendorff. Radcliffe's vision of Venice, with its unintentional anachronisms, is as unreal as Kafka's New York and Eichendorff's Rome, but it has a poetic quality that would appeal to Byron. 

Terry Castle, in her introduction to the OUP edition, describes the early part of the novel as a 'bizarre quasi-travelogue' where 'the narrative repeatedly dissolves into extended diffuse, often phantasmagoric descriptions of landscape'. And she quotes the passage, below, saying that at moments like this the novel 'seems hypnotized by the possibility of not becoming a Gothic novel - of remaining instead in a world of beautiful unfolding description. Transported by the hallucinatory 'charms' of nature, Emily and her friends may in turn remind us of moon-walkers, travelling in endless slow motion through a mauve-tinted dusk.'

It was evening when they descended the lower alps, that bind Rousillon, and form a majestic barrier round that charming country, leaving it open only on the east to the Mediterranean. The gay tints of cultivation once more beautified the landscape; for the lowlands were coloured with the richest hues, which a luxuriant climate, and an industrious people can awaken into life. Groves of orange and lemon perfumed the air, their ripe fruit glowing among the foliage; while, sloping to the plains, extensive vineyards spread their treasures. Beyond these, woods and pastures, and mingled towns and hamlets stretched towards the sea, on whose bright surface gleamed many a distant sail; while, over the whole scene, was diffused the purple glow of evening.

Saturday, February 03, 2024

Cloud tracks and tide-ripples


Last weekend I went to Cambridge to see the Kettle's Yard exhibition Making New Worlds: Li Yuan-chia and Friends. Laura Cumming wrote in her review last November 'I can hardly think of a more uplifting show for the dying days of autumn' and I felt the same way on a cold day in January. 'Everything about it,' she goes on to say, is bright, beautiful, hopeful and as amiable as the subtitle suggests. For the Chinese artist Li Yuan-chia (1929-94) had many friends, and attracted so many more to his extraordinary “museum” in Cumbria in the 1970s that over 300 artists eventually came to work in Banks, a remote village beside Hadrian’s Wall. This show is filled with their spirit.' There's a lot to say about Li Yuan-chia and his gallery space YLC, so if you're not familiar with it I'd recommend reading that review or an article Nicholas Wroe wrote for The Guardian, '"There’s a story of racialised exclusion": the forgotten Chinese artist who transformed Cumbria'.

Li himself wasn't primarily a landscape artist, although there are abstract ink drawings he made before arriving in England that could be imagined as referencing the shapes of roads, fence posts, waves or tree forms. However, deciding to live in Cumbria and establishing the YLC in 'a landscape of farmland, fells and forestry, of uncultivated moors and unpredictable mires' (Ysanne Holt) unsurprisingly brought him into contact with artists working locally with natural materials like David Nash and Andy Goldsworthy. And some of his work did draw on the history of these borderlands - there is a photograph of him in the LYC in front of an artwork based on a map of Hadrian's Wall that resembles the gallery works made by contemporary land artists. A catalogue essay by Elizabeth Fisher compares his decision to work away from urban art centres to Kurt Schwitters in his Merz Barn and Ian Hamilton Finlay creating Little Sparta.

Li Yuan-chia's friends and associates included people I have referred to here before, like Winifred Nicholson, Frances Horovitz, Delia Derbyshire and Elsa Stansfield. The exhibition also includes Nash and Goldsworthy, Naum Gabo, Ian Hamilton Finlay (The Land's Shadows) and a Cumbrian artist I hadn't encountered previously, Donald Wilkinson (an etching/aquatint of The Greta Joining the Tees/Winter). They are among the long list of LYC Museum artists on the Li Yuan-chia Foundation website. There were also several examples of concrete poetry by Dom Sylvester Houédard (dsh), including SANDROCKTIDE, shown in my photograph below. The correspondence between dsh and Li is referred to in Amy Tobin's interesting essay 'Friendship as Method' and I'll end with a nice quote from this. 'dsh said his work was akin to 'dual-space probes of inner & outer' that should be read like 'cloud tracks and tide-ripples, lichen patterns and gull flights, or simply as horizons or spirit levels.''