Friday, April 27, 2012


A while ago I mentioned an essay by Kathleen Jamie, 'On Rona', and I've just read an expanded version of it in her new book Sightlines.  Its central incident is now the sighting of a family of killer whales and a breathless chase with her two companions, an archealogist and naturalist, over the clifftops to keep them in view.  This echoes an earlier section in the book where she encounters what seems to have been the same orca family off the coast of Shetland, visible from the shore 'against the wide loose blues of the sea and sky'.  On this previous occasion she was also accompanied by an expert, the birdwatcher and writer Tim Dee, whose views and reactions she weaves into the account - he shares her excitement as they jump over the rocks and tufts of pink thrift in pursuit, coming eventually to the shore, where the killer whales 'entered a broad band of glare far too bright for our human eyes.'  In Dee's book The Running Sky, he describes a similar occasion (there is no mention of anyone else with him), sitting on a clfftop watching the sea when 'suddenly yet dreamily slow, great fins came breaking through the water.'  After walking around the cliff chasing the whales he stops and gazes out again at the sunlit sea when his attention is suddenly caught by 'a tiny earth-brown wren'.  It is a fledgling and perches on him as if he were a stone wall, turning him for a moment into a part of the Shetland landscape. 

Landscape and the body are the subject of 'Pathologies', another essay in Sightlines in which Kathleen Jamie visits the pathology lab at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee.  There she is shown a cancerous liver under a microscope 'and for one unused to microscopes it was like slipping into a dream ...  I was looking down from a great height upon a pink countryside, a landscape.  There was an estuary, with a north bank and a south ... "It's like the Tay" I said, "At low tide.  With the sandbanks."  On the southside of this estuary they examine what seems to be a set of old field dykes, 'the marks of a long inhabitation of the land' - healthy tissue.  Then they swing north over the river; 'we stopped and hovered over a different kind of place, densely packed, hugger mugger, all dark dots that semed too busy for comfort' - this was the tumour.  Later, the pathologist gives her a guided tour of an infection, a pastoral scene of bacteria grazing 'like musk ox on tundra.'  On another microscope slide, she has an aerial view of a protozoan, sailing along the coast of the small intestine.  It is, she thinks, 'the nature within.  Nature we'd rather do without.'  Later, heading home, she drives along the same river Tay that she'd fancied she'd seen in the amputated liver cells, but 'the tide was in, no sandbanks.'

Friday, April 20, 2012

Grand View Garden

There is a wonderful description of landscape design in Cao Xueqin's Hong Lou Meng ('Dream of the Red Chamber', c. 1760 - translated by David Hawkes as The Story of the Stone).  The daughter of Jia Zheng has been selected to become an Imperial Concubine, but will be allowed to see her family again on a special Visitation.  To prepare for this event, the Jia family grounds are re-designed, creating a new Separate Residence and garden, the Da Guan Yuan, or Grand View Garden.  Eventually the work is complete and Jia Zheng is asked about the bian, those calligraphic boards hung in Chinese gardens with poetic phrases, often taken from classic literature.  '"These inscriptions are going to be difficult,' he said eventually. 'By rights, of course, Her Grace should have the privilege of doing them herself; but she can scarcely be expected to make them up out of her head without having seen any of the views which they are to describe. On the other hand, if we wait until she has already visited the garden before asking her, half the pleasure of the visit will be lost. All those prospects and pavilions - even the rocks and trees and flowers will seem somehow incomplete without that touch of poetry which only the written word can lend a scene.'"

One of Jia Zheng's literary friends offers a solution to this dilemma: provisional names and couplets can be composed and written on lanterns; then, when the Imperial Concubine arrives, she can decide which ones to make permanent.  Zheng agrees but worries whether he is up to it (I can't resist quoting what he says as I think I know how he feels): "In my youth I had at best only indifferent skill in the art of writing verses about natural objects - birds and flowers and scenery and the like; and now I that I am older and have devoted my energies to official documents and government papers, I am even more out of touch with this sort of thing than I was then; so that even if I were to try my hand at it, I fear that my efforts would be rather dull and pedantic ones."  As Zheng and his friends start their walk through the garden they encounter Zheng's son Bao-yu, whose behaviour has constantly disappointed his father, but who has started to show some promise in composing poetry.  The humour in what follows comes from the exchanges between father and son: Bao-yu repeatedly manages to come up with better phrases than his elders.   

Having named a miniature mountain, a pavilion on a bridge and a small retreat surrounded by green bamboos, the party reach a miniature farm with an orchard of apricot trees and enter a thatched building 'from which all hint of urban refinement has been banished'.  Bao-yu's father lectures him on the beauty of this 'natural' simplicity, but his son is not impressed: "a farm set down in the middle of a place like this is obviously the product of human artifice."  He says he is not sure what the ancients meant when they talked of things as being 'natural': '"For example, when they speak of a 'natural painting', I can't help wondering if they are not referring to precisely that forcible interference with the landscape to which I object: putting hills where they are not meant to be, and that sort of thing.  However, great the skill with which this is done, the results are never quite..."  His discourse was cut short by an outburst of rage from Jia Zheng.  "Take that boy out of here!"' 

But the work of writing poetry onto the garden is not complete, and Bao-yu is called back.  They resume their walk, considering other garden features like the place where 'a musical murmur of water issued from a cave', recalling to mind the Peach-blossom Stream of T'ao Yüan-ming (which I described here in an earlier post).  Eventually they complete their circuit back at the foot of the artificial mountain and Bao-yu is allowed to 'get back to the girls' (as a character he is rather like Proust's narrator in À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs).  It is not until the following year that the Imperial Concubine, Bao-yu's older sister, makes her Visitation and it is quite striking how many of the garden inscriptions she does choose to amend or reject.  Coming, for example, by boat over a lake to the landing stage in a grotto named 'Smartweed Bank and Flowery Harbour', she says '"Surely 'Flowery Harbour' is enough by itself?  Why 'Smartweed Bank' as well?"  At once an attendant eunuch disembarked and rushed like the wind to tell Jia Zheng, who immediately gave orders to have the inscription changed.'

Statue of Cao Xueqin in Beijing

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Green and gold and turquoise waves

Camille Pissarro, The Garden of the Tuileries on a Spring Morning (1899)

During a pleasant sunny day last Saturday in the Tuileries Garden I popped into the Musée de l'Orangerie to see their excellent exhibition, 'Debussy, Music and the Arts'. The penultimate room is devoted to contemporary landscape paintings on themes that inspired Debussy: night scenes, seascapes and landscapes by Manet, Degas, Monet and others.  Debussy owned a copy of Hokusai's print The Great Wave and used it as a cover image when he published La Mer, three symphonic sketches for orchestra, in 1905.  Debussy's association with poets and playwrights like Mallarmé and Maeterlinck is highlighted throughout the exhibition and one display includes an edition of his own poetic compositions, Proses lyriques.  The consensus seems to be that these were not very good and I think this is fairly evident from 'The Strand', which attempts to describe the sea in words: 'the waves chatter like silly little girls let out of school in their lustrous frilly green silk dresses...' (see the translation on The Lied, Art Song and Choral Text Archive).  La Mer, by contrast, as I mentioned in an earlier post, is surely one of music's 'most successful evocations of the sea'.

There are various reviews, programme notes and sound recordings of La Mer online: a Radio 3 programme by Stephen Johnson, for example, in which Debussy's Impressionism is compared to Monet's waterlilies (which of course are also on show at the Musée de l'Orangerie). But I want here to quote from a short article by Nicholson Baker in Granta in which he describes visiting the hotel in Eastbourne where Debussy completed the composition.  'There was dried rain-dust on the outside of the glass, but I looked out over the water and saw, near to shore, an unexpected play of green and gold and turquoise waves – not waves, really, because they were so small, but little manifestations of fluid under-energy. The clouds had the look that a glass of rinse water gets when you’re doing a watercolour – slowly diluting black roilings, which move under the white water that you made earlier when you rinsed the white paint from the brush. But the sea didn’t choose to reflect the clouds that day; it had its own private mallard-neck pallet, the fine gradations of which varied with the slopes of the wind-textured swells. Through the dirty window, I thought I saw, for a moment, what Debussy had seen.'

Sunday, April 15, 2012


If you are interested in the depiction of strange mountainscapes, it is worth looking out for art inspired by the Virgin of Montserrat, patroness of Catalonia. The Mare de Déu de Montserrat is a statue venerated at the Benedictine mountain monastery and she is usually shown seated on a throne among the crags or floating above the mountain tops. The Museu Frederic Marès in Barcelona has a Montserrat Hall entirely devoted to objects linked to la Moreneta ('The little dark-skinned one'), all collected by Marès (1893-1991), the artist and restorer who worked tirelessly to preserve Catalonia's artistic heritage.   It is perhaps not surprising that such a striking landscape became a symbol, recognisable even in the simple design of the dish in my photograph below.  A thousand years after the founding of the monastery the Catalan poet/priest Jacinto Verdaguer composed the 'Legends of Montserrat' (1880), including lyrics that became a famous hymn, 'Virolai', in which the formation of these serrated peaks is attributed to the work of angels, sculpting the mountain with golden saws: 'Amb serra d'or los angelets serraren'. 

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Clouds over the Xiao and Xiang Rivers

'Clouds over the Xiao and Xiang Rivers' (Xiaoxiang Shuiyun) is one of the most famous qin melodies, composed at the end of the Song dynasty by Guo Mian (or Guo Chuwang, 'Chu-looking', because he travelled in the Chu region).  John Thompson's excellent site devoted to the guqin includes a sound sample and a translation of the music's original preface: 'the Emaciated Immortal says this piece was written by Mr. Chuwang, Guo Mian. Mr. Guo was from Yongjia. Whenever (while in Chu) he wanted to look at the Jiuyi mountains they were blocked by clouds above the Xiao and Xiang rivers, so he used (writing music about) this to express his loyalty to his country. However, this piece about water and clouds (also) has the suggestion of making one's own enjoyment; the flavor of cloud shapes reflected in sparkling water; and a desire to have wind and rain fall on the head, to wear a grass rain cape by the side of a river, and to use a boat on the Five Lakes (to hide from the world).'  The composition comes in ten sections, which can be compared to the Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang rivers that I described here a few years ago. 
1. Mist and rain over Dongting Lake
2. The Jiang and Han river scenery is broad and clear
3. Cloud images cast down by a brilliant sky
4. The sky and water join on the horizon
5. Waves roll and clouds fly
6. A wind comes up and stirs the water
7. Water and sky have the same azure colour
8. Cold river and cool moon
9. Limpid waves extend forever
10. (Evening) reflections contain all aspects of nature
Another surviving composition by Guo Mian is Fan Canglang ('Floating on the Canglang River') of which the Emaciated Immortal has this to say: 'Its topic is rowing a small boat in the five lakes, and casting aside rank and fame as if they were discarded mustard plants. (In the boat it feels as if you are) carrying the wind and moon and playing with the clouds and water; affairs of the world seem as insignificant as bubbles on the surface of the water, your Dao encompasses all of history, and your mind joins with the universe; its theme is like this.'  The three sections are (1) 'Mist and rain on the five lakes', (2) '(Treat) honor like mustard grass' and (3) 'Play with clouds and carry the moon in a boat.' John Thompson explains that the precise identity of this Canglang river is not clear, but the song probably refers to a poem by Qu Yuan called 'The Fisherman' in Chu Ci ('Songs of the South'). 'The unemployed and distraught Qu Yuan, wandering on a marshbank, comes across a fisherman to whom he speaks his grief. The fisherman then sings a Canglang Song, "When the water in the Canglang is clear, I can wash the tassels of my hat in it. / When the water in the Canglang is muddy, I can wash my feet in it." Without another word the fisherman then leaves Qu Yuan. The meaning of the poem is that when government is clean it is fine to work with it, but when it becomes dirty one should be happy to leave it.'

Thursday, April 05, 2012

The Struga. Pictures of our Landscape.

The River Struga, Saxony

I sometimes wonder how much interesting writing on landscape in other literatures remains inaccessible to a monoglot English reader.  Consider, for example, the poetry and prose of Lusatia, written in Upper and Lower Sorbian (Slavonic languages also known historically as Lusatian or Wendish). The work of Kito Lorenc sounds intriguing: he wrote Struga. Wobrazy našeje Krajiny (The Struga.  Pictures of our Landscape) in 1967 while employed at the Sorbian Ethnological Research Institute (and more recently a volume called Ty porno mi (1988) in which, according to Gerald Stone in the Everyman Companion to East European Literature, 'erotic themes predominate'). You can read a few of Lorenc's poems, translated by Robert Elsie, in the anthology, A Rock Against these Alien Waves; 'Painting Easter Eggs', for example, which funnily enough is exactly what my sons are doing as I write these words.

Map of the Lusatians, c. 1715-24

The 'father' of modern Sorbian literature was Hendrij Zejler, a Lutheran pastor who wrote a long sequence, Počasy (The Seasons), inspired by James Thomson's work of the same name (the first volume appeared in 1847).  Apparently these poems 'embody the peasant's unsentimental view of Nature and found great favour with the common people', but I'm not clear whether they convey any particular sense of the Lusatian landscape. After Zejler's death, the Sorbian composer Korla Awgust Locor set 'The Seasons' to music and it would be interesting to know the extent to which it uses sound to evoke the natural world.  The Sorbian poem I'd most like to know more about was written by a contemporary of Zejler, another pastor, Kito Fryco Stempel.  Te tśi rychłe tšubały (The three lively trumpets), written between 1859 and 1863, is decribed by Geoffrey Stone as consisting 'of 522 syllabic sestine representing the world as an acoustic phenomenon.'