Friday, October 31, 2014

When the soft wind turns bitter

The Natureingang, 'nature opening', is found in many forms of Medieval poetry: the Latin verse of the clerici vagantes and Goliards, the songs of the Troubadours and Minnesingers, lyric poetry in French, English, Irish.  Spring would be the setting for songs of love and pastoral dialogues, whilst the end of summer and the onset of winter would signify loss and mourning.  Such poetry can therefore be grouped according to mood, like books of haiku arranged according to their season word (kigo).  The sleevenotes to one recording of songs by the early thirteenth century German poet Neidhart explain that he tended to classify them 'into “summer” and “winter” songs, according to which season he employed in the Natureingang (nature introduction) that opens nearly every song. Here he establishes an emotional backdrop for the lyrics: “Winter” symbolizes a melancholic atmosphere and is well suited to introducing topics that strongly refer to classical Minnesang, while descriptions of the approaching summertime are generally used for lighter subjects, often containing dance descriptions.'  You can hear one of these, 'Welcome the Sweet Summer Weather', in the clip embedded above.  The lines below begin another, sadder song:
Everything that all summer long was full of joy
turns to sadness with this winter-long, arduous time.
The birds have everywhere fallen silent with their singing.
Flowers and grass are utterly withered.
Look, how much cold frost covers the forest canopy.
The heath lies pale for good reason...
It occurred to me that it might be possible to string together nature openings to form a seasonal cycle, beginning now, in autumn, at a turning point in the year.  Here, for example, are lines are from some troubadour poems:

When the soft wind turns bitter
And the leaf falls from its branch                              

For I see the oaks reft of their leaves,
While nightingale, thrush, woodpecker and jay
Shiver with cold, and from the chill retreat               
[Peire d'Alvernhe]

When the ice and cold and snow retreat
And warmth creeps back into the land                      
[Guiraut de Bornelh]

Such sweetness spreads through these new days
[Guillem de Peitus] 

When tender grass and leaves appear
While buds along the branches throng                      
[Bernart de Ventadorn]

Now high and low, where leaves renew,
Come buds on bough and spalliard pleach               
[Arnaut Daniel]

In April when I see all through
Mead and garden new flowers blow                         
[Peire Bremon lo Tort]

When the days grow long and warm with May,
How sweet the birds' song sounds afar                      
[Jaufre Rudel]

(Translations from Lark in the Morning: The Verses of the Troubadours, ed. Robert Kehew)

The Natureingang was not only used in lyric and love poems.  As K. H. Jackson points out (in a book I quoted earlier this month), it also served to set the scene for longer poems like the Canterbury Tales and Vision of Piers Plowman.  I will end here therefore with Chaucer's opening lines; as we head towards winter, they offer a sweet reminder of spring... 
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages...

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Jewelled Garden

Before him there were trees of precious stones,
And he went straight to look at them.
The tree bears carnelian as its fruit,
Laden with clusters (of jewels), dazzling to behold,
It bears lapis lazuli as foliage,
Bearing fruit, a delight to look upon.

[25 lines are missing here, describing the garden in detail.]

... cedar
... agate
... of the sea ... lapis lazuli,
Like thorns and briars ... carnelian,
Rubies, hematite, ...
Like... emeralds (?)
... of the sea,
- The Epic of Gilgamesh Tablet IX, trans. Maureen Gallery Kovacs

This is the earliest known literary depiction of a garden.  Time wore away the clay tablet on which it was written so that we no longer have a view of the whole, just these imagistic fragments, a few imperishable precious stones separated by ellipses.  The jewelled plants in the Epic of Gilgamesh remind me of the crystal flowers in J. G. Ballard's story 'The Garden of Time' which, while they last, are able to keep at bay the progress of time.  There is an analogy with the nature of a garden too, as Donald Dunham pointed out in his essay, 'Architecture without Nature': 'just as evidence of an untended garden's existence slips gracefully back into the earth, so too elemental nature has eroded the ancient tablet's legibility.'

The Gilgamesh tablets were found in the buried Library of Ashurbanipal, the Assyrian king who I described here in an earlier post, dining in the garden at Nineveh whilst a tree nearby hung not with jewels, but with 'the decapitated head of the conquered king of the Elamites.'  When Nineveh was sacked and burned, the library's contents were fired and thus, ironically, made more durable.  Over the years, as Egypt's papyrus libraries crumbled away or went up in flames, the clay tablets preserving the Gilgamesh Epic lay unknown under a mound near Mosul.  Heat had transformed a story originally written on wet clay with with a blunt reed into a part of the landscape, awaiting rediscovery.

This process came to mind when I read last week about a 100-foot Gillian Clarke poem written in clay onto the landscape of North Wales.  The BBC reported that
'a giant mural of a poem on a rock face in Snowdonia for an outdoor theatrical production has been likened to graffiti after attempts to remove it failed.  Rain was supposed to wash the writing off the slab near Gladstone Rock but there are worries it has been baked on due to the warm September weather.  National Theatre Wales has apologised and said it will rectify the problem. ... A spokesperson explained that Clarke's poem had been written on "bare rock with a non harmful clay-based product designed to wash away in the rain".  The spokesperson added: "However, the unseasonably dry weather in September has meant that her powerful words have remained visible longer than expected. With autumn now upon us nature can take its course and continue to wash away the poem."'

The Epic of Gilgamesh Tablet XI

I wonder whether any traces of this poem will remain after the autumn rains, or if all efforts will be made to eradicate its words completely.  The Gilgamesh fragment shown above comes after the garden episode and describes a great deluge when the gods caused humankind to be almost entirely washed away.  In the nineteenth century, at a time when Biblical history was under intense scrutiny, the 'powerful words' of this ancient text were capable of provoking extreme excitement.  According to the British Museum site, 'this Assyrian version of the Old Testament flood story was identified in 1872 by George Smith, an assistant in The British Museum. On reading the text he ... jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself.''

Friday, October 17, 2014

Sweeney's Bothy

Sweeney's Bothy

One of Alec Finlay recent projects, Sweeney's Bothy, was built last year on the Isle of Eigg as part of The Bothy Project.  'The bothy belongs within a new contemporary movement – identified by Finlay as ‘hutopian’ – in which artists create huts and viewing platforms in the Scottish wilderness, proposing them as ecological, technological, architectural, and social models.'  Some interesting artists and writers have already stayed there, as you can see from the Bothy blog: Kathleen Jamie, Hannah Devereux, Oran Wishart.
'The bothy is based on Finlay’s design, inspired by the 7th Century Gaelic King Sweeney (Shuibhne). Cursed, Sweeney fled into a wilderness, surviving for a decade among the trees and birds, living on sorrel, berries, sloes and acorns, and enduring ‘the pain of his bed there on the top of a tall ivy-grown hawthorn in the glen, every twist that he would turn sending showers of hawy thorns into his flesh’ (Flann O’Brien, At Swim, Two Birds). Sweeney’s poetry from that period describes the austere beauty of the remote glen where he lived naked, communed with animals, and existed beyond convention. The myth of Sweeney conceals remnants of shamanic animism within pre-Christian culture. Like Han Shan, Basho, and Thoreau, Sweeney is a visionary hermit rejecting ‘feather beds and painted rooms,’ engaging with nature, the irrational, overturning accepted knowledge.'

View from Sweeney's Bothy with thorn bowl

Residents at Sweeney's Bothy can enjoy 'sorrel, berries, sloes and acorn' from bowls with a scratched thorn decoration, made by my wife.  The original poem Buile Shuibhne gives a vivid sense of the way Sweeney was able to live off the land.  I have written here before about the wonderful English version by Seamus Heaney, which was inspired by Kenneth Jackson's earlier translations.  Jackson's first book, Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry (1935), has recently been reprinted and it contains this marvellous description of natural foods in Irish poetry (the numbers refer to poems translated in the first part of the book).
'The variety of the plants and animals found in the countryside and eaten by the early Irish on the testimony of the poems is quite astonishing to a twentieth-century town-dweller, to whom "living on berries and nuts" seems such an improbable kind of existence.  No. V mentions apples, yew-berries, rowan-berries, sloes, whortleberries, crowberries, strawberries, haws, hazel-nuts, mast, acorns, pignuts, water-cress, herbs, wild marjoram, onions, leeks, eggs, honey, salmon, trout, water, milk and beer.  No. XVI speaks of deer, swine, mast, hazel-nuts, blaeberries, blackberries, sloes, trout.  No. XV has cress, brooklime, mast, trout, fish, wild swine, stags, fawns.  In no. XIX are blaeberries, blackberries, apples, sloes, strawberries, acorns, nuts, pig fat, porpoise steak, birds, venison, badger fat, fawns, salmon, fish.  No. XVII mentions blackberries, haws, hazel-nuts, bramble shoots, "smooth shoots", garlic, cress, meadhbhán, dilisk, birds, martens, woodcocks, otters, salmon, eels, fish.  Suibhne Geilt gives his "nightly sustenance" as blaeberries, apples, berries, blackberries, raspberries, haws, cress, watercress, brooklime, saxifrage, seaweed, herbs, sorrel, wood-sorrel, garlic, wild onions and acorns ... The diet is then one of flesh of animals and birds, fruit, berries, nuts, herbs, shoots, and waterplants, eggs, honey and fish, an impressive and intriguing menu.'

Earlier this year the Corbel Stone Press published Alec's Sweeney on Eigg which 'leaps off' from Seamus Heaney's version of  Buile Shuibhne.  It imagines the outcast Suibhne wandering as far as the island of Eigg.  Fleeing over crags and burns, sheltering among sheep, passing over moss and moorgrass, through birch and tares, blackthorn and brambles, he comes at last to a stop. 
I will sing
with peewits, cuckoos, & throstles
making the moor ring
from Druim na Croise.

I will hide Rum
with my hand
and stroke the fine down
on my arms.

Then, when the sunsets
drive me mad
with their beauty,
Suibhne will be gone.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Rhine (Melancholia)

Like the Turner exhibition I went to a couple of weeks ago, the Royal Academy's Anselm Kiefer retrospective is full of landscapes that are also history paintings.  The Morgenthau Series, for example, are ostensibly romantic depictions of nature, but the title is a reference to the wartime American plan to deindustrialise Germany.  The Guardian's Jonathan Jones was beguiled by them: 'we seem to fall into nature, to be immersed in it. Giant threads of light waft in the wind, dwarfing the spectator, who gets lost in the reverie of a rural hike right in the middle of London.'  He doesn't mention that one of these paintings has a rusty mantrap attached to it (a vagina dentata - the painting is named after Courbet’s ‘L’Origine du Monde’).  But it is true that these are less sombre than most of Kiefer's work, their extraordinary colours enhanced with gold leaf and lead that has been turned emerald green through a process of electrolysis.  Kiefer himself seems to have had some doubts about their beauty, as he told Jackie Wullschlager of the FT. “I so much like flowers and I painted so many flower pictures that I had a very bad conscience, because nature is not inviolate, nature is not just itself. So what to do with this beauty? I thought, ‘I will call it Morgenthau’." It sounds cynical but he was probably joking.  As with his close contemporaries from southern Germany, Werner Herzog and W. G. Sebald, there is often an undercurrent of dark humour in what he says.

I took the photographs above on the way in to the Royal Academy.  They show one of two installations in the courtyard dedicated to the Futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov, who developed an esoteric theory on the cyclical nature of naval warfare (a few years ago Kiefer devoted a whole exhibition of sea paintings at the White Cube to Khlebnikov).  It would be impossible to do justice to everything I saw inside the exhibition - there is far too much to write about even if I just stick to landscape-related work: an early watercolour of a bleak winter landscape with a severed head in the sky dripping blood onto the snow, a huge wall-sized vitrine containing a painted forest with real roses and brambles (owned by the sister of Alain de Botton), a nightscape with real diamonds set into the paint that reminded me of what I wrote here only two days ago about mountains and stars...  I will quote instead two more critics, writing about artworks made nearly forty years apart, one in a case at the beginning of the exhibition, the other taking up the whole of its last room.
The Burning of the Rural District of Buchen IV (1975): Martin Gayford in RA Magazine explains that this 'documents an imagined conflagration and destruction of the area where he was then living and working. The later pages of the book are burnt, encrusted with charcoal, just as much of Germany itself had been during the war. But fire, while terrifying and annihilating, can also be healing, as Kiefer’s title hints. The German word he used for ‘burning’, ausbrennen, also means ‘cauterisation’. This is how the traditions of Friedrich and Schinkel looked and felt to Kiefer in the aftermath of the Third Reich: burnt out, haunted by overpowering, terrible events.'
The Rhine (1982-2013): Alastair Sooke in The Telegraph writes that 'the show ends on a high, with a beautiful installation called The Rhine, a collage of black-and-white woodcuts on canvas with acrylic and shellac compiled over more than two decades, between 1982 and 2013. The various gigantic canvases of this compelling artwork have been arranged as interlocking screens, so that the viewer enters a maze-like forest with the waters of the Rhine visible in the distance.  In between the tree trunks stand the touchstones of Kiefer’s imagination: wartime bunkers, a blaze of fire, the polyhedron from Durer’s famous print Melancholia. It is as if one of Kiefer’s lead books has come to life and is embracing us within its pages.'

Friday, October 10, 2014

In the Sierra

All day cloud shadows have moved over the face of the mountain,   
The shadow of a golden eagle weaving between them   
Over the face of the glacier.
At sunset the half-moon rides on the bent back of the Scorpion,   
The Great Bear kneels on the mountain.
Ten degrees below the moon
Venus sets in the haze arising from the Great Valley.
- from 'Fall, Sierra Nevada' in 'Toward an Organic Philosophy' (1940) by Kenneth Rexroth (the full poem can be read at the Poetry Foundation)

In the Sierra: Mountain Writings collects the poems Kenneth Rexroth wrote about his years exploring the Sierra Nevada, along with extracts from his autobiography, newspaper columns and a practical guide to camping in the Western Mountains.  Its editor Kim Stanley Robinson is well known for science fiction that explores environmental themes, often involving mountain climbing - similar in some ways to M. John Harrison, the British science fiction writer and climber I talked about here last year.  Robinson provides endnotes that try to place the poems, speculating on the trails Rexroth must have taken and the vantage points from which he describes the landscape.  There is also a short piece at the end of the book by another Californian SF writer and 'amateur astronomer' Carter Scholz, that tries to locate the poems in time using Rexroth's frequent references to stars and planets.  For example, using information in the poem quoted above he deduces that Rexroth was camping on September 28th 1938 'at Lake Catherine, from which the San Joaquin ("Great") Valley is also visible; from this vantage Ursa Major would have been "kneeling" above Mount Davis to the northwest."

For me this astronomical detective work only serves to emphasise what becomes evident when you read through these poems, that for Rexroth the mountain landscape extends out into space.  Camping out on a high trail he already had a long view: 'Looking out over five thousand / Feet of mountains and mile / Beyond mile of valley and sea.'  Then, as night falls, he could lie back and study the stars.  This poem is 'The Great Nebula of Andromeda', one of a group called 'The Lights in the Sky are Stars', written for his young daughter Mary.  The Poetry Centre Digital Archive has a recording of Rexroth reading these poems in 1955 (he breaks off to tell his listeners what they could see if they looked up at the constellation of Hercules, apologising that 'the finer details of astronomy may escape a miscellaneous audience.') The final poem in this sequence is 'Blood on a Dead World', describing Mary's excitement at viewing an eclipse (Carter Scholz pins this to 6:30pm on January 18 1954).  Earlier this week the same phenomenon, a 'blood moon', was visible over America and Asia.  Rexroth stands in wisps of fog and watches with his daughter as the moon slowly darkens.
        "Is it all the blood on the earth  
        Makes the shadow that color?"  
        She asks. I do not answer.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Tusculan's romantic groves

Olafur Eliasson's Turner Colour Experiments (2014) at Tate Britain

As reviewers of Tate Britain's Late Turner – Painting Set Free have pointed out, there is much more to the artist's final years than the 'sublimely empty pictures' that regularly get compared to the work of abstract artists.  The last Turner show I went to, at Margate earlier this year, paired him with Helen Frankenthaler and two years ago the Tate itself mounted an exhibition that made the link with Cy Twombly's later paintings.  Visiting this new exhibition last weekend, I came ready to enjoy the art anachronistically: the abstract expressionism of Turner's Rough Sea (1840-5), the minimalist sequence of blue and grey sky studies (similar to those in the Channel Sketchbook viewable at Google Art) and of course those famous visions of Venice dissolved in light.  The temptation to forget Turner's subject matter and see his work in terms of pure colour was also encouraged by the presence of Olafur Eliasson's Turner Colour Experiments (for a discussion of these, see BLDGBLOG).  But ultimately I found I was just as interested in the way Turner persisted with history painting, where his spectacular effects seem often to magnify rather than overshadow the incidents they depict, drawn from Shakespeare, the Bible and the classics.  For this post I want to focus on one of these, Cicero at his Villa, which Turner exhibited in 1839.

J. M. W. Turner, Cicero at his Villa, 1839

I have written here before about the appeal of bringing the work of Latin writers to life by imagining them in their setting, as Gilbert Highet did in his classic study Poets in a Landscape (1957).  In 1819 Turner was in Italy, sketching at Frascati, which, according to a travel book he owned, was the site of  Roman Tusculum.  There he would have pictured Marcus Tullius Cicero, who wrote Stoical essays there (the Tusculan Disputations, 45 BCE) on such cheerful topics as grief of mind, bearing pain and contempt of death, two years before being killed as an enemy of the state.  However, Turner was approaching Cicero through the lens of art, because, as his sketchbook makes clear, he was looking for the site where his admired predecessor, Richard Wilson, had set Cicero and his Friends at his Villa.  This painting, first exhibited in 1770, is usually identified with Arpinum, but Turner would have seen another version (see below) which its owner called Cicero at Tusculum.  Another source for Turner's painting may have been 'The Pleasures of Memory', a long poem that brought Samuel Rogers literary celebrity when it appeared in 1792, which mentions Cicero at Tusculum.  Thus there are various paths that lead from Turner's picture back to its classical source and the three texts below (all referred to in a 1981 article by William Chubb) show how art drawn from landscape leads back to art again.

Richard Wilson, Cicero with his friend Atticus and brother Quintus,
 at his villa at Arpinum, c.1771-75

(1) First there is Turner himself, drawing a parallel between Wilson and Cicero in a lecture called 'Backgrounds, Introduction of Architecture and Landcape' which he delivered in February 1811.  This can be found in an old edition of the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes - the reason it is not widely published is presumably that it is not very well written (Roger Fry tried to transcribe it and gave up saying that "it would be unfair to Turner to publish work that only shows his weaknesses").  Towards the end of the lecture, Turner regrets the fact that Zuccarelli's 'meretricious' paintings
'defrauded the immortal Wilson of his right and snatched the laurel from his aged brow. In vain did ...  the Cicero at his Villa sigh for the hope, the pleasure of peaceful retirement, or the dignified simplicity of thought and grandeur, the more than solemn solitude that told his feelings.  In acute anguish he retired, and as he lived he died neglected.'
(2)  Then there is the passage on Cicero that Turner marked in his own copy of Rogers' Poems (1827).  Turner knew the poet and illustrated the long poem Italy that Rogers based on his travels (fit was from Italy that Rogers wrote to a friend: 'Oh if you knew what it was to look upon a Lake which Virgil has mentioned & Catullus sailed upon, to see a house in which Petrarch has lived.')  In 'The Pleasures of Memory', Rogers describes 'the charm historic scenes impart' and refers to the time Cicero (Tully) visited Syracuse a hundred and sixty years after the death of Archimedes, to find the Sage's grave unregarded and overgrown.
'So TULLY paus'd, amid the wrecks of Time,
On the rude stone to trace the truth sublime;
When at his feet, in honour'd dust disclos'd,
The immortal Sage of Syracuse repos'd.
And as his youth in sweet delusion hung,
Where once a PLATO taught, a PINDAR sung;
Who now but meets him musing, when he roves
His ruin'd Tusculan's romantic groves?'
(3)  Finally, Cicero.  At various times he owned villas at different locations, so that Wilson was able to paint another Cicero-related view (below) that combines Italian light and classical allusion.  Cicero's Arpinum villa was used as the setting for his book on law, De Legibus.  This begins with the scene Wilson depicts in the painting shown above, where Cicero (Marcus), his brother Quintus and friend Atticus are looking at an old oak tree associated with the Consul Gaius Marius (157-86 BCE).  Thus the poignant capacity of landscape to preserve fragments of culture, which Wilson, Rogers and Turner experienced in Italy and exemplified in their art and poetry, can be found in De Legibus described by the writer who inspired them.  Cicero's dialogue refers to his own earlier poem, and to a palm tree on Delos that takes us all the way back to Homer. 
'Atticus. —This is the very grove, and this the oak of Arpinum, whose description in your poem on Marius, I have often read. If, my Marcus, that oak is still in being, this must certainly be it, but it appears extremely old.
Quintus Cicero. —Yes, my Atticus, my brother’s oak tree still exists, and will ever flourish, for it is a nursling of genius. No plant can owe such longevity to the care of the agriculturist as this derives from the verse of the poet.
Atticus. —How can that happen, my Quintus? How can poets bestow immortality on trees? It seems to me that in eulogising your brother, you flatter your own vanity.
Quintus. —You may rally me as much as you please, but as long as the Latin language is spoken, this oak of Marius will not lose its reputation; and as Scævola said of my brother’s poem on Marius, it will “Extend its hoary age, through countless years.” Do not your Athenians maintain that the olive near their citadel is immortal, and that tall and slender palm tree which Homer’s Ulysses says he beheld at Delos, do they not make an exhibition of it to this very day? and so with regard to other things, in many places, whose memorial endures beyond the term of their natural life. Therefore this acorn-bearing oak, on which once lighted “Jove’s golden Eagle, dazzling as the sun,” still flourishes before us. And when the storms of centuries shall have wasted it, there will still be found a relic on this sacred spot, which shall be called the Oak of Marius'
Richard Wilson, Cicero's Villa and the Gulf of Pozzuoli, 1770-80