Thursday, June 26, 2014

The River Duddon

The valley of the River Duddon

In 1820 William Wordsworth published The River Duddon, A Series of SonnetsAs Stephen Gill points out in his essay, 'Wordsworth and the River Duddon', reviewers were bemused that a famous poet should choose to write about this ‘insignificant river’ with a ‘barbarous name’:
‘What would he not have written had the majestic Thames employed his muse’, exclaimed the Literary Chronicle and Weekly Review, getting the matter exactly wrong. The lines from Burns quoted at the close of the ‘Postscript’ to the River Duddon sonnet sequence ought to have alerted the reviewer to Wordsworth’s poetic intent. In the verse letter ‘To William Simson, Ochiltree’, Burns declares that, ‘Illisus, Tiber, Thames, an’ Seine’ having all been celebrated in ‘monie a tunefu’ line’, he and his fellow poet should now rather seek the Muse ‘Adown some trottin burn’s meander’ in their own locality, to ‘gar our streams and burnies shine / Up wi’ the best’.  Wordsworth read this poem almost as soon as it was published in 1786, quoted from it throughout his life, and adopted its forthrightness as he began his celebration of the river with the barbarous name.'
In The Song of the Earth, Jonathan Bate suggests that the choice of the Duddon for a sonnet sequence over, for example, those other Wordsworthian rivers, the Wye and the Derwent, may have had something to do with its location, rising near the confluence of Westmoreland, Cumberland and Lancashire.  Standing in three counties at once is to feel both connected to the local and in touch with a much wider geography.  Wordsworth believed in a nationalism rooted in the regions, a country of small Anglican parishes where the periphery was as important as the centre, the Duddon as worthy of literature as the Thames.  A couple of years ago I wrote here about Wordsworth's sonnet Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, Sept. 3, 1802, in which the poet stood looking out over the Thames.  Here I will give a brief summary of the River Duddon sequence, from source to sea.
  1. Wordsworth's first sonnet announces his theme - not the spring of Bandusia, not some Persian fountain, not an Alpine torrent, but 'long-loved Duddon'.
  2. This river is 'remote from every taint / of sordid industry' and has remained unchanged, long after the surrounding forests have vanished 'where stalked the huge deer to his shaggy lair / through paths and alleys roofed with darkest green.'
  3. Wordsworth sits and prepares to 'paint' the river in words.  No monument marks its birthplace but instead the river itself has 'shed a gleam / of brilliant moss, instinct with freshness rare.'  
  4. The Duddon is like a snake, threading 'with sinuous lapse the rushes, through / dwarf willows gliding, and by ferny brake.'  
  5. After the solitude of 'sullen moss and craggy mound' the river becomes shaded by green alders, ashes and 'birch-trees risen in silver colonnade'.
  6. He describes the flowers that grow by the side of the river: wild strawberries, thyme and 'trembling eyebright ... sapphire blue'.
  7. A 'love-sick Stripling' might envy the plucked rose lying on his lover's breast, or imagine himself her caged bird singing, but those with 'calmer mind' would rather be an 'unculled floweret or darkling wren / that tunes on Duddon's banks her slender voice.'
  8. The poet wonders what kind of man first came upon this stream.  Whatever his ancient beliefs, the river's role was then as it is now, to heal, restore, soothe and cleanse.
  9. There are some stepping stones in the river.  Crossing here, when a flood runs 'fierce and wild', the Child puts 'his budding courage to the proof', whilst 'Declining Manhood learns to note the sly / and sure encroachments of infirmity.'
  10. The stepping stones again, and this time two young lovers cross, she blushing and holding out her hand, he teasingly withdrawing it, and then both of them feeling the thrill when their hands touch.  
  11. A flight of fancy in which tiny dancing elves are imagined dancing by their 'sunless cleft' and stealing a baby.
  12. As if realising that this sort of thing will try our patience, he exclaims: 'On, loitering Muse--the swift Stream chides us--on!'  It is all too easy for the river's features to become the 'toys of Fancy.'
  13. We zoom out to an open prospect of fields and a hamlet under a green hill.  Wordsworth imagines the pleasures of a warm hearth here in cold weather, 'when bleak winds roar / through the stiff lance-like shoots of pollard ash'.
  14. The river seems to seek its own solitude, attended only by its own voice, leaving behind the solitary shepherd and his cottage.
  15. From a 'deep chasm, where quivering sunbeams play', he sees a kind of 'gloomy niche' in the rock where some ancient statue might have been placed, sculpted by men perhaps, or fire, or the waters of the Deluge.
  16. A continuation of the theme, in which Wordsworth describes the caves and rock drawings of Native Americans.
  17. He hears the croak of a raven on a blasted yew and an eagle 'shedding where he flew / loose fragments of wild wailing.'  Sheep sleep by the remains of the old Roman fort and the ancient stone circle of the Druids.
  18. The sonnet is entitled 'Seathwaite Chapel' and suggests that the vale of the River Duddon protects 'Truth's holy lamp', alluding to the ministry of the Reverend Thomas Walker of whom Wordsworth wrote a short memoir, appended to the poem sequence.
  19. A tributary: 'waters, from their aery height / hurrying, with lordly Duddon to unite.'  Its musical murmur announces a source of refreshment to the thirsty fields.
  20. On the flowery plain of Donnerdale, the waters are slow and serene, but further on the course is rougher and the river dances from rock to rock.  
  21. 'The cloudy stall / of Time, breaks forth triumphant Memory' and Wordsworth recalls those he once roved with on the banks of the River Duddon.
  22. In a sonnet called 'Tradition' the story is told of a love-lorn Maid who yearns for a primrose reflected in a clear, blue pool and, it is implied, drowns there.
  23. Banishing such sad thoughts, he recalls the 'blithe cheer' of boys shouting and dogs barking whilst sheep are washed in a pool formed where bands of rock check the stream.
  24. Now he finds a good place to rest, 'with woodbine hung and straggling weed ... half grot, half arbour', enclosing both the body and the mind.
  25. Here he can imagine 'the One for whom my heart shall ever beat / with tenderest love' being brought.  But without her, 'the waters seem to waste / their vocal charm.'
  26. Memories of childhood: 'fondly I pursued, / even when a child, the Streams--unheard, unseen; / through tangled woods, impending rocks between.'  He has learnt much from the river.   
  27. He describes a ruined castle, 'quietly self-buried in earth's mould'. 
  28. He rises to continue his onward journey, while cattle avoid the heat of the day by crowding together 'under rustling trees / brushed by the current of the water-breeze.'  
  29. There are no stories of battles fought over this landscape, but to those who lie buried and unremembered,'the passing Winds memorial tribute pay'.
  30. In life, Wordsworth suggests, it is best not to yield to sudden temptations or swerve away too far from innocence.  He is content to 'saunter o'er the grassy plain' here, chained loosely to the river, knowing when he leaves that he will always return to it.
  31. The 'Kirk of Ulpha' is a welcome sight and he imagines reclining among its graves or marking the distant moonlit mountain summits, faintly shining, 'soothed by the unseen River's gentle roar.'  
  32. This penultimate sonnet is pure landscape: a description of the lower reaches of the river, 'gliding in silence with unfettered sweep'.
  33. The original sequence ends with the sea that the Duddon flows into - here there are no warships, just humble sailing boats.  Wordsworth would like to end his days like the river, 'prepared, in peace of heart, in calm of mind / and soul, to mingle with Eternity!'
Postscript: Wordsworth later added a thirty-fourth sonnet in which, as Jonathan Bate says, 'the poet deconstructs, then reconstructs, the analogy between human life and the life of the river.'  It can be read at The Poetry Foundation.

The stone circle referred to in Sonnet 17

[In one of his endnotes Wordsworth says that 'the country people call this circle Sunken Church'.  We visited Sunkenkirk, as it is now known, on our recent trip to the Lakes.  In The Modern Antiquarian, Julian Cope calls it 'perfect from all angles ... this Sunkenkirk is a place for the most righteous devotion.']

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Enclave

We looked in on the Photographers Gallery yesterday to see the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize contenders.  I was particularly interested in The Enclave series by Richard Mosse (which has won him the prize), documenting the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  He hit upon the inspired idea of using discontinued infrared colour film, which was formerly used by the military to identify camouflaged targets.  The infrared light reflected by grass and trees appears in lurid but strangely beautiful shades of pink. Mosse hopes his work will help to bring exposure to a conflict that goes largely unreported in the media, just as the infrared film was designed to make the invisible visible.  In the video below, he talks about the film he made as part of this project - more visceral, proximate and scary than the "beautiful" landscape photographs you can see behind him as he talks.

The photograph I was initially drawn to in the exhibition, Men of Good Fortune (2011), is a picturesque composition of gentle grassy slopes, pastoral figures and trees that might have been artfully placed by a Capability Brown.  These hills were originally inhabited by Congolese tribes who grew crops and hunted for bush meat, until they were driven out by pastoralists who cut down the forest for grazing.  Richard Mosse's camera renders this landscape's history of intimidation and human rights abuses in shocking pink, like superficially healthy teeth subjected to a plaque disclosing tablet.  Nowhere to Run (2010) shows another vista of unearthly pink hills, which seem to have undergone the kind of transformation J. G. Ballard described in The Crystal World. This rose quartz-coloured terrain is, according to the caption, 'rich in rare earth minerals like gold, cassiterite and coltan, which are extracted by artisanal miners who must pay taxes to the rebels.'

Of course one question these photographs raise is whether the aesthetic pleasure they provide is a distraction from what is really happening in The Enclave.  Would direct documentary images be more shocking or informative?  In the interview below, Mosse says that one of the difficulties he encountered was that the the deep wounds inflicted by rape 'lack a visible trace' (last week's End Sexual Violence in Conflict conference here in London, which my wife took part in, was designed to raise the profile of this issue).  His images may be beautiful on the surface, but, he suggests, beauty is effective - 'the sharpest tool in the box.  If you can seduce the viewer and you can make them feel aesthetic pleasure regarding a landscape in which human rights violations happen all the time, then you can put them into a very problematic place for themselves - they feel ethically compromised and they feel angry with themselves and the photographer for making them feel that.  That moment of self awareness is a very powerful thing.'

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Broken Road

The latest New York Review of Books carries a piece by Daniel Mendelsohn on Patrick Leigh Fermor and the posthumous publication of The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos.  Apparently Lawrence Durrell once referred to the 'truffled style and dense plumage' of Leigh Fermor’s prose and Mendelsohn suggests that 'what you think of his writing, and indeed what you make of the final instalment of his most beloved work, depends on your taste for truffles and feathers.'  Well I'm certainly not averse to them now and again, and I found myself as entranced by this volume as I had been by the earlier two (which have been mentioned here before).  Some feathers feature in this landscape description, which comes towards the end of the book, in December 1934, when PLF is just days away from his final destination and has reached the wooded slopes on the edge of the Black Sea.
'Downhill at the end of plunging tunnels of trunks and branches and over the foliage of the ledges, the lowest stems of which seemed almost rooted in the sea, the European continent fell to fragments in spikes and small tufted islets far below, standing in translucent, pale green water, which darkened as it receded from the rocks to bottle green and the blue of peacock's neck feathers and fled away to the skyline.  The almost still water was stirred by incoming creases as slight as a breath on silk, just enough to hem the join of rock and water with a thin bracelet of white, but too little to interfere with the symmetry of the semi- and three-quarter circles that the rocks sent spinning slowly out to sea again.  Only the ghost of their sigh floated up through the mews and the wheeling sunlit wings of the seagulls.'
As he continues through these woods, the late afternoon sun strikes them at an angle parallel to their slope, 'filling the clearings and striking the tree-boles and the foliage with layers of wintry gold, hanging rafts of light in the leaves, falling through the wood in long spokes and breaking up the loops of shadow over the surface of the water with horizontal windows of radiance.'  This perfect moment of solitude and peace in the 'celestial light' is full of the promise of what he imagines he will soon experience in the islands of the Aegean.  Later that day however, after the sun has set, he becomes lost among the rocky headlands, slips into a freezing pool, drops his torch and almost gives up hope before stumbling upon a cave where a group of shepherds and seamen revive him with fish, lentils and raki.  As Neil Ascherson points out in his LRB review, the description of what follows - a 'night of mighty bardic song, feasting and ancient dances' - may not be literally true to what happened on the journey, but it constitutes one of the book's most memorable set pieces. The evening finally ends with firelight ebbing on the walls and the stalactites while this extraordinary young traveller, unable to sleep, lies looking up at a high gap in the cave's wall where the stars of Orion are visible, blazing 'like a slanting lozenge of ice-crystals.'

Friday, June 06, 2014


We were at St Luke's on Sunday, the converted church near the Barbican which we last visited to hear Terje Isungset play his ice instruments.  This time we had come to see Richard Skelton and the Elysian Quartet perform music they devised together at Aldeburgh earlier this year.  I have described Richard's landscape-inspired music here several times before; live performance with a classical string quartet is a new departure for him.  The Elysian Quartet have a pretty cool CV, having performed Stockhausen's Helicopter Quartet and worked with people like Meredith Monk, Simon Fisher Turner and Damo Suzuki.  What I have included below are the programme notes describing the three sections of the St Luke's concert, along with a few brief reflections on what we heard.
EA performed by Richard Skelton and the Elysian Quartet: Rivers have occupied much of Richard’s recorded work, including the fledgeling moorland streams of ‘Landings’, the narrow, quick Cumbrian rills and becks of ‘Limnology’, and the tidal-bore of ‘From Which the River Rises’. ‘EA’ continues this fascination with a study of Suffolk’s river Alde as it slows and widens past Snape on the final, estuarine portion of its journey to the sea. It is perhaps his most delicate and lyrical invocation of a waterway. The word ‘ea’ itself is Anglo-Saxon for ‘river’.
Everyone I talked to afterwards found this slow, meditative piece particularly moving.  The string quartet, with Richard sitting beside them bowing an adapted bouzouki, gradually brought the music to an emotional pitch and gently let it fall again, before taking its themes up once more and finally bringing everything quietly to a close.  The riverine wash of the strings was punctuated by some insistent sounds like the cries of birds that at first I assumed were on a loop, until I realised everything was being produced by the five acoustic instruments.  As the references to his earlier work above suggest, Ea felt close in sound and feel to the music in Landings and other more recent releases.  The next piece was very different.
Above / Below performed by the Elysian Quartet: During his residency at Snape last December, Richard spent much of his time wandering along the Alde and through the nearby marshland towards Iken. Over the ensuing winter he began writing a textual score based on the names of birds and plants he observed in-situ, found referenced in public information signage, or discovered during later research by consulting books such as W.M. Hind’s The Flora of Suffolk . The Elysian Quartet selected eight species from the score and began working with Richard to develop a musical vocabulary that engages with them, hinting at the diversity of plant and avian life in Snape and its surroundings. The result is a series of miniatures, shifting focus from one species to another, from the earth-bound and air-borne – a sensitively observed journey through a specific environment. The species they chose were: common sorrel, curlew, heron, nettle, oystercatcher, redshank, yarrow and yellow flag. 

For Above / Below Richard left the stage and looked on as the quartet interpreted his score, beginning with an irregular patter of notes from one of the violins that sounded like rain but was, I think, an interpretation of the motion of an oystercatcher.  As the music progressed it was clear they were avoiding anything too obvious like the simple imitation of bird calls or other natural sounds.  Instead the four instruments, plucked and bowed, sometimes alone and sometimes in concert, were channelling elements of the Suffolk landscape in more subtle ways.  There is no recording available to listen again and try to identify any species, so the music will become a memory, like the recollections of impressions of a walk by the reed beds of the Alde.
Mimesis performed by Richard Skelton and the Elysian Quartet: ‘Mimesis’ is informed by Richard’s experience of the intense tidal surges of early December 2013, during which Snape Maltings itself was nearly inundated. Intimations of this flood-violence are found in the following public information sign along the marshland boardwalk: ‘The River Fights Back: In places along the banks of the river Alde, land was once claimed from the river to create farmland. Defences were built to protect this claimed land. Over the centuries the river has broken through again. The remnants of the defences are still visible, stretching out into the estuary.’ During his stay in December, Richard produced a collection of charcoal drawings, the majority of which seemed to describe the same river-like form undergoing a series of contortions. The ensemble have used these images as a kind of graphic score, producing a new work which evokes a river undergoing violent transformation.
Richard returned to the stage for this final piece.  By now the light outside was fading but still strong enough to illuminate the natural backdrop of leaves, visible through the large church windows behind the musicians and stirring softly in the wind.  Mimesis started softly too, but grew louder and more turbulent, becoming a roiling torrent that had the kind of surging force that reminded me of seeing Godspeed back in the day.  Richard's bow took some punishment and towards the end there were fine broken hairs curling from it, illuminated in the stage lights like electrical filaments or the spiralling seed heads of rose bay willow herb.  It was over all too soon: the music drained away, the musicians left the stage and we all remained in silence for a minute, until the lights came on and it was time to make our way out through the darkening churchyard.

Postscript: After the concert it was good to meet Hannah Devereux, whose ink drawings feature in the second edition of Lintel, an art journal published by the Corbel Stone Press which Richard runs with his partner Autumn. They are purely abstract but suggestive of fine rock strata or expanses of calm water stretching away to the horizon.