Saturday, April 17, 2021

In the twilight there is a field

Yosa Buson, Travels Through Mountains and Fields, c. 1765
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I've been reading The Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson, translated by W. S. Merwin and Takako Lento. The collection was put together just after Buson's death in 1784. Such brief verse can evoke a landscape through metonymy but rarely makes you think immediately of landscape views like the Buson painting above, the Met's Travels Through Mountains and Fields. I did notice a general exception to this rule though and it occurs when fiels are the subject of the poem - you can't really talk about a field without evoking a landscape. There are 868 haiku in the volume so I think it is probably OK under fair use to reproduce just four here, one for each season. For spring it is a toss-up between numbers 58, 140 and 183 but I'll go for the first, which actually has a 'landscape' title, 'Looking across the Field'.

Mist in the grass

the water silent

just before sunset

This summer poem, no. 317, also has a title, 'On the Way Home from Seeing the Nunobiki Waterfall with Tairo and Kito'. Tairo and Kito were his disciples. Nunobiki Waterfall I have mentioned here before in connection with The Tales of Ise (c. 900).

Evening sun slipping behind the hills

a waterwheel is turning

in the field of ripening wheat

The autumn poem, no. 487, is again set at sunset

The mountains darken after the sun goes down

in the twilight there is a field

of silver grass

And finally, no. 742, winter

Vast dry field

out in the desolation

the sun slips into the rock

Clearly these are all variations on a theme: the field and the sunset are constants, but the atmosphere is different in each poem.


Finally, a message I have to pass on from Blogger. 'Recently, the FeedBurner team released a system update announcement , that the email subscription service will be discontinued in July 2021.
After July 2021, your feed will still continue to work, but the automated emails to your subscribers will no longer be supported.' Sorry about this...

Sunday, April 04, 2021

A Landscape Painter in Albania


 Edward Lear, The valley of the Shkumbin River
near Elbasan in central Albania
, 26 September 1848 

Edward Lear's travel writing is, as you would expect, written with a sharp wit and punctuated with discriptions of landscape. The fact that he was travelling and then writing as a landscape painter gives his books a double interest for me. Journals of a Landscape Painter in Albania for example begins with a description of his equipment - only the essentials needed to travel light, in what was then still a region barely visited by English travellers. He complains a lot about his accommodation but explains that he had no choice but to stay in roadside khans - if he had tried to stay instead with the local pashas he would need to have fitted in with ceremonies and meals that would have left no time for sketching. Lear was there in the autumn of 1848 and mentions finding a German newspaper to read and being amazed at the news of revolutions across Europe. His route through what is now Albania was partly forced on him by widespread quarantine and travel restrictions (cholera, rather than Covid-19, in those days). It began in the east, after he had travelled overland from Thessalonika via Bitola and Ohrid. He then headed towards Tirana and just before reaching it wrote this description of the mountain landscape.

'How glorious, in spite of the dimming scirocco haze, was the view from the summit, as my eyes wandered over the perspective of winding valley and stream to the farthest edge of the horizon — a scene realizing the fondest fancies of artist imagination! The wide branching oak, firmly rivetted in crevices, all tangled over with fern and creepers, hung half-way down the precipices of the giant crag, while silver-white goats (which chime so picturesquely in with such landscapes as this) stood motionless as statues on the highest pinnacle, sharply defined against the clear blue sky. [...] 
It was difficult to turn away from this magnificent mountain view — from these chosen nooks and corners of a beautiful world — from sights of which no painter-soul can ever weary: even now, that fold beyond fold of wood, swelling far as the eye can reach — that vale ever parted by its serpentine river — that calm blue plain, with Tomohr in the midst, like an azure island in a boundless sea, haunt my mind's eye, and vary the present with visions of the past. With regret I turned northwards to descend to the new district of Tyrana; the town (and it is now past eleven) being still some hours distant.
Edward Lear: Tepeleni, Albania, c. 1848–1849

Unfortunately, as this suggests, Lear's descriptions of scenery are not all that interesting, even if they do make you want to visit Albania. You wouldn't expect anything like his nonsense verse but you might hope for a more original mode of landscape description. In an NYRB review (from which the image above is taken) of a reprint of the journal, Brad Leithauser says

'The book imparts almost no sense of Lear’s reading, the literary spirits he might have been seeking to commune or contend with during his travels. Most of the few literary references are to Byron, only because he happened to precede Lear to Albania by a couple of decades. Sentence by sentence, the book gives scant indication of a poet’s sensibility, for Lear was a slapdash prose stylist. Edward Lear in Albania often seeks to portray panoramic landscapes through words, a challenge that typically elicited from Lear sweeping and obvious adjectives: “noble,” “majestic,” “sublime.” He was especially fond of “picturesque,” which at one point appears three times in a single paragraph.'

Despite this defect, it is fascinating to read about Lear's experiences of a country that had so recently been under the rule of Ali Pasha. I'll end here with his decription of visiting Tepelenë:

'At the end of the space enclosed by the walls, and overhanging the river, is a single mosque — solitary witness of the grandeur of days past ; — and beyond that, all the space, as far as the battlement terrace looking north and west is occupied by the mass of ruin which represents Ali's ruined palace. The sun was sinking as I sat down to draw in what had been a great chamber, below one of the many crumbling walls — perhaps in the very spot where the dreaded Ali gave audience to his Frank guests in 1809 — when Childe Harold was but twenty- four years old, and the Vizir in the zenith of his power. The poet is no more ; — the host is beheaded, and his family nearly extinct ; — the palace is burned, and levelled with the ground ; — war, and change, and time have, perhaps, left but one or two living beings who, forty years back, were assembled in these gay and sumptuous halls.'*

*I'm not sure what Tepelenë is like today. In 2013, Tim Neville, on the trail of Byron, described it in a travel piece for the Financial Times: 'I drove to Tepelena, where the remains of Ali Pasha’s palace stood derelict and littered with rubbish. A plaque celebrating the poet’s visit hung from the side of a wall next to a petrol station...'

Sunday, March 28, 2021

the quiet island

Last year Carcanet published The Threadbare Coat: Selected Poems by Thomas A. Clark, a writer I have often referred to on this blog. There is an introduction by Matthew Welton that briefly discusses the poems' language and formal properties. He notes, for example, the repetition of words from poem to poem: 'the hills, clouds and water give us a sense of where we are in the landscape. And the mentions of nothingness, aloneness and longing, say something of what we can expect from territory of this kind.' He suggests that the 'reuse of a limited vocabulary across a range of poems feels appropriate to the landscapes that are the focus of these poems.' These places are only occasionally identified but it is clear that we are reading about the Scottish Highlands and Islands. Perhaps some of the poems are about the idea of this landscape rather than anything more specific - 'the quiet island', for example, is like a parable where the narrator finds peace but misses the melody of events, and so one morning, quietly leaves.

I could mention several of the book's landscape poem sequences but will just highlight one here. 'a walk in a water meadow' suggests that we will be given a series of ambulatory observations, but in the first stanza, a gentle mist closes in. This mist dampens sound and detaches objects from their context. The walker attends to the world in a different way: as places disclose themselves, vision is both impaired and repaired. The water meadow takes on the forms of mist: fine webs, cotton-grass and cuckoo-spit, alders wrapped in wool and skeins of mist snagged on larch. A walk in mist, he concludes, 'makes no progress / history is suspended / resolve dissolves.' History feels suspended in almost all of these poems, which offer the chance to concentrate on timeless phenomena: dusk and dawn, wind and waves, raindrops in a pool, light falling on a leaf, water flowing over roots and stones.

There is a YouTube clip where Tom introduces the book and reads 'the quiet island'. I have embedded it below and transcribed here what he says about the Highlands and Islands:

'These are landscapes of great clarity and resilience; they often have a surprising gentleness - all qualities that I want to percolate into the poetry.  But this is not where I live. I live on the east coast, above Edinburgh. So I'm always at some distance from the landscapes I write about. No doubt this distance sharpens desire. I always want to head out into the Highlands. Somehow I feel more relaxed there than anywhere else. I seem to be more responsive and resourceful than anywhere else. It's as if a whole set of cultural accretions has fallen away, or more likely, blown away. And this is one sense of The Threadbare Coat, the title of this new book from Carcanet Press. It's an image of poverty and exposure, as if there could be only the lightest membrane between you and the landscape.'

Friday, March 12, 2021

The Mummelsee, a supposedly bottomless lake

I have been looking back at some books I read before starting this blog and have never got round to mentioning. One of these is Simplicissimus, the picaresque novel by Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, written in 1668 and translated for Dedalus by Mike Mitchell. Near the end of the book, its hero Simplicius hears various tales told about 'the Mummelsee, a supposedly bottomless lake on one of the highest mountains in the neighbourhood.' (Wikipedia's entry on this Black Forest lake begins, disappointingly: 'the Mummelsee is a 17-metre-deep lake...') The stories told to Simplicius concern disappearing animals and sightings of water sprites. On one occasion, he learns, a Duke of Württemberg tried to measure the depth of the lake with a length of twine but his boat started to sink and he had to abandon the attempt. Curious about this strange place, Simplicius decides to set off to see it for himself.

When he arrives with his companion after a walk of less than six hours, the two of them polish of the food and drink they brought and then proceed with some scientific observations, drawing a map and tasting the water to see if it would explain why some trout that had been introduced on one occasion all died. They then locate a spot 'where the water, otherwise as clear as crystal, seems to be pitch black on account of its awesome depth'. Ignoring his companion's advice, Simplicius throws stones into the lake. Storm clouds begin to gather and, looking into the water, he sees creatures swimming up from the depths, bringing back the stones. One of them, the Prince of Mummelsee, comes to the surface and takes Simplicius back down with him. Eventually they reach the centre of the earth where they discuss politics, religion and geography. He doesn't spend long there before returning to the surface, but he does give a memorable short description of the way this land of the sylphs is lit by the lakes of the world.

'While I was there I observed how the sun shone on each lake in turn and sent its rays down to these awesome depths, making it as bright in this abyss as on the surface and even casting shadows. The lakes were like windows for the sylphs through which they received both light and warmth. Even if they didn't always come directly, because the sides of some lakes were twisted, they were transmitted by reflection because nature had set whole slabs of crystal, diamonds and rubies where necessary in the angles of the cliffs.'

The Mummelsee
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The magical lake of Mummelsee also appears in a poem by Eduard Mörike, who I wrote about here last month. 'The Ghosts of Mummelsee' is one of his poems later set to music by Hugo Wolf. There is a New York Festival of Song blog post on this Lied, which gives an English translation by Charles L. Cingolani. The narrator, hiding in some bushes, sees a funeral procession for the king of the lake. The ghosts walk over the water and then enter it through a sparkling gate. However, there is a twist at the end when they realise they have been watched...

How lovely the fires glow on the water! 
They flare and then turn green;
Fog moves in clusters along the shore,
The pond is turning into a sea—
Be still!
Is there something stirring out there?

In the middle a twitching—For heaven’s sake! Help!
They come back again, they are coming!
A bellowing in the reeds, a crunching in the rushes;
Make haste, take flight!
They sense trouble, they are on my tracks!

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Landscapes of Detectorists

When I look back on this period of lockdown I think the 'highlight' will probably be the fortnight or so we spent as a family watching Detectorists on the BBC iPlayer. What my sons say they most appreciated was the gentle humour and escapism of it, but I suspect too there was something comforting in the idea that historical imagination and curiosity can transform a small stretch of landscape. Despite some sunny weather, this has been another weekend of staying indoors except for the short permitted exercise along familiar streets, and yet each time we walk them we see some new detail in the design of a house or the contents of a garden. Every day I pass a house with a blue plaque to the poet Louis MacNeice but I have long since taken as much interest in the houses surrounding it, wondering about the lives they have contained. The terminus of my regular walk is Canonbury Tower, an old Tudor building once owned by Thomas Cromwell which reminds you of the layers of history anywhere in London.

Last year Colin Sackett's Uniformbooks brought out a book on Detectorists in which four geographers analyse the series in terms of different ways of reading landscape, aspects of verticality, gender roles and the resonance of lost, everyday objects. It is a pleasure to read, although if you have just binge-watched the series you'll find it covering familiar ground. In some ways I was more interested in what writer Mackenzie Crook and producer Adam Tandy had to say about the making of the programmes and the ways in which they made metal detecting more televisual. I didn't realise, for example, that it is best done in autumn or winter on muddy, unattractive ploughed fields - very different from the sunny Constable-like landscapes we see in the series. Crook took up the hobby when he started writing the script and actually managed to find a piece of gold Roman jewellery, which is now in the British Museum. And it was wonderful to learn that one of the more poetic moments in Detectorists had happened to him in real life. One day, while he was out detecting on a farm in Suffolk, he 'dug down four inches to find an exquisite bronze hawking whistle.'

'I took a few minutes to unclog the mud with a piece of straw, then held it up to my lips and blew. The note that issued from the whistle was a ghost, a sound unheard for centuries, and the last person to hear that sound, that exact sound, was the person who dropped it just yards from where I was standing. And it wasn't a faint, feeble ghost either: it was an urgent, piercing shrill that echoed across the field and back through time.'

Friday, February 19, 2021

The floating islands of Lake Vadimon

In these interminable lockdown days it is easy to get sick of walking the same streets over and over again. Of course there is always Google Earth, although I always suspect I may not always be looking at wha tI think I am. I thought I would travel in the footsteps of my blog namesake, Pliny the Younger, to the small lake 'called Vadimon'. According to Wikipedia its waters have now almost evaporated - 'the lake is almost completely underground and fed by sulphurous springs that pour milky waters into it'. But is there anything really still to see? Google Maps does show a small blue circle but Google Earth doesn't seem to allow you any closer than the image above (photograph taken in 2011). I think the 'lake' is to the right of the road, somewhere in that field.  

Pliny begins his letter by observing that one doesn't have to travel far to see natural wonders, sometimes they are practically on our doorstep. It is a point always worth bearing in mind, although I think I've seen all there is to see within a short Covid-restricted walk from our home. He then describes 'one of these curiosities', a lake

'perfectly circular in form, like a wheel lying on the ground; there is not the least curve or projection of the shore, but all is regular, even and just as if it had been hollowed and cut out by the hand of art. The water is of a clear sky-blue, though with somewhat of a greenish tinge; its smell is sulphurous, and its flavour has medicinal properties, and is deemed of great efficacy in all fractures of the limbs, which it is supposed to heal. Though of but moderate extent, yet the winds have a great effect upon it, throwing it into violent agitation. No vessels are suffered to sail here, as its waters are held sacred; but several floating islands swim about it, covered with reeds and rushes, and with whatever other plants the surrounding marshy ground and the edge itself of the lake produce in greater abundance.'

Pliny then explains how these islands sometimes move in a cluster and sometimes get dispersed, seeming to race each other. Grazing sheep from the surrounding fields board the islands, seemingly oblivious to the fact they have left dry land. The lake empties into a river which,'after running a little way, sinks underground, and, if anything is thrown in, it brings it up again where the stream emerges.' He signs off the letter by saying: 'I have given you this account because I imagined it would not be less new, nor less agreeable, to you than it was to me; as I know you take the same pleasure as myself in contemplating the works of nature.'

Saturday, February 06, 2021

On a Winter Morning before Sunrise

In his poem 'On a Winter Morning before Sunrise', the twenty-one year old Eduard Mörike (1804-75) wrote of his emotions on seeing the first light-as-down light of dawn: 'my soul is like crystal'. He felt his mind still as still water, opened to wonder by a ring of clear blue sky. A perfect way to start the day, certainly better than listening, as I do, to the latest grim news on the radio. The editor/translators of this poem, David Luke and Gilbert McKay, link it to 'Urach Revisited’ (1827), another 'major expression of the poet's youthful sensibility.' Bad Urach is a spa town at the foot of the Swabian Alb where Mörike studied at the evangelical seminary. His nostalgic return as a young man is reminiscent of Wordsworth’s poem on Tintern Abbey. A stream flows heedlessly past without any sorrow at the flux of time and the poet questions the landscape surrounding him:   

Here you all are, ancient and new,
Bare sunlit hills uprearing, summits made
For cloud-thrones, woods where scarcely noon breaks through,
Where balmy warmth mingles with deepest shade:
Do you still know me, who once fled to you,
Whose heavy head sweet-slumbrously was laid
Here in cool moss to hear the insects humming –
Do you know me, and shrink not at my coming?

Eduard Mörike wrote one of the stories most special to me, 'Mozart's Journey to Prague' - one I have re-read before in bleak times and found myself reaching for again recently. Although tinged with sadness, because we and the narrator know what will happen eventually to Mozart, it is a story of a brief, idyllic encounter, a moment (in the words of the translators) of 'festivity and conviviality, badinage and Lebenslust, memories of an earlier golden age of culture.' This sparkling novelle is not really about landscape although it begins with Mozart and Constanze journeying through the Moravian mountains. They then descend into a valley and stop at a village and Mozart decides to take a short walk. He enters the park of a local Count, sits down by some orange trees and, with his mind on his music, inadvertently picks one, an action which sets in train the events of the story.     

I will end this brief post on Mörike by mentioning a couple more poems on the subject of spring. In 'Frühlingsgefühle', translated as 'Intimation of Spring', violets wake and dream their time is near. It puts me in mind of the crocuses I saw on my lockdown exercise walk yesterday. 'In the Spring' find the poet lying on a hill: clouds drift, rivers flow and sunlight enter his veins. And yet he still feels a yearning, 'for what I cannot say'. It makes him wonder what memories are woven into 'this twilight of the gold-green leaves? / - The nameless days of long ago!'