Friday, April 28, 2017

Holy Island

The view from Holy Island 
on the morning of Maundy Thursday

Before leaving for our Easter break in Northumberland I had joked about shivering on beaches in a freezing North Sea wind.  However, I hadn't appreciated how beautiful the effect of this would be, with a layer of sand swirling constantly across the surface - see my brief clip below.  Watching back the video footage I took over the course of a week it sounds as if there was a constant howling gale.  In one sequence on Lindisfarne I can be heard saying excitedly to the camera that the birdsong is just as you can hear it on Chris Watson's album, In St Cuthbert's Time, but none of it can be made out above the wind.  It was different when we were there though, sitting among the stones on the shore, near the ruins of Lindisfarne Abbey, listening to the cry of the eider duck that is so prominent in the Lencten section of In St Cuthbert's Time.  I wrote in an earlier post about hearing these recordings at Durham Cathedral in the quiet of a chapel; on Holy Island we were able to hear these sounds unmediated, carried over the water on the wind.

Earlier this month there was a short programme on the BBC called 'Into the Wind'.  It followed Tim Dee as he talked of the ways the wind shapes his experiences of walking and birdwatching.  An accompanying piece in the Guardian, 'The Man Who Interviewed the Wind', provoked the inevitable below the line jokes (from which I learnt the meaning of 'Dutch oven' - not a piece of landscape vocabulary that will find its way into Robert Macfarlane's word hoard), but also explains how Tim uses the natural soundscape in his work as a radio producer.  'Turning to record a little minute of the wind lets me experience the place beyond human talk. On good days, in good places, I can sense myself joined to a landscape. It is the wind that carries me there.'  The programme ends with a dramatic wide-angle view of Tim pointing his microphone towards the vast mudflats of the Wash to record the wind as it surges in from the North Sea.

As Chris Watson pointed out in one of the BBC's Tweets of the Day, the sound of the eider duck is often thought to resemble that of Frankie Howerd.  I found myself wondering if Cuthbert ever felt goaded by it - in Bede's Life of St Cuthbert the monks are constantly vigilant against temptation, 'our loins ever girt against the snares of the devil and all temptations'.  The sounds on In St Cuthbert's Time give a peaceful impression of monastic life, but perhaps the cries of the seabirds could be a torment to monks in search of spiritual purity.  'How often have the demons tried to cast me headlong from yonder rock,' Cuthbert told visitors to his hermitage on Inner Farne.  Although he was an active missionary, his life looks like a series of steps to free himself from the world.  After entering the monastery of Melrose as a boy, he eventually joined the priory of Lindisfarne, easily accessible only at low tide, then isolated himself on what is now St Cuthbert's island - an islet next to Lindisfarne also regularly cut off by the sea - before leaving the priory altogether to live as a hermit on the Farne Islands.  There the walls of his cell were such that all he could see was the sky, so that 'eyes and thoughts might be kept from wandering.'
A raven brings pig's lard to Cuthbert on Farne
from the Yates Thomson MS of Bede's Life of Cuthbert, c. 1200

We took a boat trip to Inner Farne, the small island where Cuthbert lived as a hermit from 676.  It is now managed as a nature reserve by the National Trust and their rangers make do with no running water ("we might smell a bit as we only shower once a week").  Cuthbert, according to Bede, found a well there with the help of God.  He also persuaded the birds not to eat his crops and shamed a pair of ravens into bringing him a gift of pig's lard - incidents depicted in medieval illuminated manuscripts.  Cuthbert is celebrated now for conserving the eider ducks, instituting one of the first bird protection laws.  However, the language of Bede in his Life of St Cuthbert is very much about mastery over nature.  In Chapter 21, Cuthbert is aided by the sea itself, which deposits with the tide a length of wood just right for his dwelling.  'It is hardly strange that the rest of creation should obey the wishes and commands of a man who has dedicated himself with complete sincerity to the Lord's service.  We, on the other hand, often lose that dominion over creation which is ours by right through neglecting to serve its Creator.' 

Guillemots on Inner Farne

The tide times meant that we arrived early on Lindisfarne, before anywhere was open, and so while the others ambled over the beach I tried to do some sketching.  Thomas Girtin and J. M. W. Turner both came here within a year of each other at the end of the eighteenth century and drew the interior of the ruined priory.  Girtin's crumbling columns were influenced by seeing the way Piranesi had depicted the ruins of Rome.  Cuthbert himself must have known more Roman remnants than we see in northern Britain today; in the Life he visits Carlisle and is shown an old Roman fountain set into the city walls.  Now the medieval priory, built on the site of the original one that the monks, fleeing the vikings, abandoned in 875, lies exposed to the wind.  There is less of it standing than there was when Turner came here in 1797.  Girtin's paintings of the priory 'emphasised the fact that it had been untouched by the hand of improvers' (Greg Smith, Thomas Girtin: The Art of Watercolour).  In them, and in Turner's drawings, the ground is uneven and overgrown, very different from the green lawns maintained today by English Heritage.

J. M. W. Turner, Holy Island Cathedral, c. 1807-8

Thomas Girtin, Lindisfarne Castle, Holy Island, Northumberland, 1796-7

Lindisfarne has a castle, built in 1550, the subject of dramatic paintings by both Girtin and Turner, renovated in Arts and Crafts style by Lutyens.  It is now being restored again and is inaccessible, covered in scaffold.  We were able though to see nearby the little garden designed by Lutyens' friend Gertrud Jekyll, sheltered inside a dry stone wall.  Before leaving the island, we walked some way round the coast, listening again to the eider ducks.  We past that point where some figures can be seen in Girtin's painting, grouped around a fire.  The way he shows the smoke blowing suggests the strength of the wind on the island.  I will conclude here with a story in the Life of St Cuthbert that concerns wind and fire.  One day, Cuthbert was staying in the home of a holy woman, who rushed in to warn him that a house in the village was alight.  Cuthbert told her to keep calm and 'he went out and lay full length in front of the door.  Before he had finished praying the wind had changed to the west and put the house the man of God had entered completely out of danger.'  Bede concludes that God will 'give us grace, unworthy though we are, to extinguish the flames of vice in this world, and escape flames of punishment in the next.'

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The voice of the north wind sad

Zhang Fengyi as Cao Cao in John Woo's Red Cliff (2008-9)

In a post earlier this month I referred to the musical duel in Red Cliff, John Woo's epic film about  events at the end of the Han dynasty, based on 'the Iliad of China', The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.  The composer/writer I discussed there, Cai Yong, only briefly features in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and doesn't appear in Red Cliff, but here I want to focus on Cao Cao, the great warlord at the heart of the story, whose army is defeated spectacularly in the movie.  Cao Cao was himself a renowned poet and wrote a famous poem just before the Battle of Red Cliff.  You can see him recite it in the clip from YouTube below - a scene from the 95-episode Chinese TV dramatisation Three Kingdoms.  This moment has often been depicted in art - there is a painting in the Long Corridor of the Beijing Summer Palace, for example, and I have reproduced below a Japanese ukiyo-e print showing Cao Cao composing the poem in a boat, with the moon rising and crows wheeling in the sky.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Moon rising over Mount Nanping, contemplated by Cao Cao, 1885

The real reason for mentioning Cao Cao on this blog is not his eve-of-battle composition, but a beautiful short poem 'Viewing the Ocean', which is an early example in world literature of pure landscape poetry.  Here are the first six lines in Burton Watson's translation; the Jieshi (Chieh-shi) mountains overlook the Bohai Gulf.
East looking down from Chieh-shih,
I scan the endless ocean:
waters restlessly seething,
mountained islands jutting up,
trees growing in clusters,
a hundred grasses, rich and lush.
Other translations of the full poem can easily be found online (there are two on a Chinese Poems site for example).

Another poem of Cao Cao's that has stayed with me over the years (since reading it in Burton Watson's The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry) is the 'Song on Enduring the Cold'.  This was probably written in 206 when Cao Cao was leading his troops across the Tai-hang mountains to attack a rival.  Taken out of context though, it could simply be a description of an arduous mountain journey - 'stark and stiff the forest trees, the voice of the north wind sad.'  The poem ends with a literary allusion, to 'that song of the Eastern Hills', a 'troubled tale that fills me with grief.'  It is a reference to a song in the Classic of Poetry (No. 156), attributed to the Duke of Zhou.  He had also been on a military campaign in the East, over a thousand years earlier, c. 1040 BCE (as distant from the time of Cao Cao as we are from Charlemagne).  I'll end here with the refrain from this ancient poem, repeated at the start of each verse (trans. Stephen Owen):
We marched to those eastern mountains,
streaming on and never turning.
And now we come back from the east,
in the pall of driving rain.   

Friday, April 21, 2017

In the mist of the secret and solitary hill

"I have given you the trouble of walking to this spot, Captain Waverley, both because I thought the scenery would interest you, and because a Highland song would suffer still more from my imperfect translation were I to introduce it without its own wild and appropriate accompaniments. To speak in the poetical language of my country, the seat of the Celtic Muse is in the mist of the secret and solitary hill, and her voice in the murmur of the mountain stream. He who woos her must love the barren rock more than the fertile valley, and the solitude of the desert better than the festivity of the hall."
An illustration to Sir Walter Scott's Waverley, from an edition of 1893

In my last post I wrote about the Chinese poetic ideal of hearing a guqin played in the landscape.  Here in Waverley (1814), the enchanting Flora McIvor is speaking to the eponymous hero, newly arrived in the Highlands, having led him to this perfect location to hear her 'imperfect translations' of Gaelic poetry, to the accompaniment of a harp.  This place of barren rocks and murmuring water might just as easily be the setting for a Chinese 'mountains and rivers' poem.  Making his way there, Waverley had found
'the rocks assumed a thousand peculiar and varied forms. In one place a crag of huge size presented its gigantic bulk, as if to forbid the passenger’s farther progress; and it was not until he approached its very base that Waverley discerned the sudden and acute turn by which the pathway wheeled its course around this formidable obstacle. In another spot the projecting rocks from the opposite sides of the chasm had approached so near to each other that two pine-trees laid across, and covered with turf, formed a rustic bridge at the height of at least one hundred and fifty feet. It had no ledges, and was barely three feet in breadth.'
From this vantage point Waverley had watched Flora cross the bridge, feeling all the emotions we associate with the Sublime.  The editor of the OUP edition of Waverley (Clare Lamont) notes that a similar bridge appeared in Scott's The Lady of the Lake (1810), that an actual bridge of this kind existed, spanning Keltie Water, and that there had been other examples of heroines of sensibility crossing Alpine bridges in slightly earlier novels written by Ann Radcliffe and Jane Porter.  Passing under the bridge, Waverley found himself in 'a sylvan amphitheatre, waving with birch, young oaks, and hazels, with here and there a scattered yew-tree. The rocks now receded, but still showed their grey and shaggy crests rising among the copse-wood. Still higher rose eminences and peaks, some bare, some clothed with wood, some round and purple with heath, and others splintered into rocks and crags.'  Then, turning the path, he came to the secluded spot where Flora would sing him her Highland song.

He found Flora gazing at 'a romantic waterfall.  It was not so remarkable either for great height or quantity of water as for the beautiful accompaniments which made the spot interesting.'  The description that follows is based on the falls of Ledard, as Scott explained in his own footnote.  Interestingly, the novel makes clear that this setting was not entirely wild.  'Mossy banks of turf were broken and interrupted by huge fragments of rock, and decorated with trees and shrubs, some of which had been planted under the direction of Flora, but so cautiously that they added to the grace without diminishing the romantic wildness of the scene.'  Here, with the sun stooping in the west, Waverley gazes at Flora, thinking 'he had never, even in his wildest dreams, imagined a figure of such exquisite and interesting loveliness. The wild beauty of the retreat, bursting upon him as if by magic, augmented the mingled feeling of delight and awe with which he approached her, like a fair enchantress of Boiardo or Ariosto, by whose nod the scenery around seemed to have been created an Eden in the wilderness.'

Reading this, you have the impression that the native Sublimity of the Highlands has somehow been infused with the light of Italy.  In the 1814 edition Scott described Flora by the waterfall as 'like one of those lovely forms which decorate the landscapes of Claude'.  I have mentioned here before the awkwardness of Claude's figures; soon after publication a correspondent pointed out to Scott that 'Claude's figures are reckoned notoriously bad, & indeed he only used them as vehicles for a little blue, red or yellow drapery to set of his gradation of tints & throw his landscape into distance.'  Scott took his advice and substituted Poussin for Claude in subsequent editions.

Flora begins to sing, sitting on a mossy fragment of rock, 'at such a distance from the cascade that its sound should rather accompany than interrupt that of her voice and instrument [...] A few irregular strains introduced a prelude of a wild and peculiar tone, which harmonised well with the distant waterfall, and the soft sigh of the evening breeze in the rustling leaves of an aspen, which overhung the seat of the fair harpress.'  But her song is not dedicated to Nature, though it begins with the mist on the mountains.  The year is 1745, Flora is an ardent supporter of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Highlanders are about to rise and fight for the Jacobite rebellion.  Waverley, without firm political convictions, a lover of literature, is as yet unaware that the Young Pretender has landed at Glenaladale and raised his standard at Glenfinnan.  About to be caught up in the conflict (like one of those Chinese poets interrupted from their retreat in the mountains by political strife and war), for now he listens innocently, with a 'wild feeling of romantic delight', as Flora sings: 
"  ... the dark hours of night and of slumber are past,
The morn on our mountains is dawning at last;
Glenaladale’s peaks are illumined with the rays,
And the streams of Glenfinnan leap bright in the blaze..."

Thursday, April 06, 2017

When the two essences of nature are bright and clear

A scholar playing the guqin, Ming Dynasty
Reproduced in R. H. van Gulik's The Lore of the Chinese Lute

I have written here about guqin music twice before: once in relation to two compositions of the Song Dynasty by Kuo Mien (Guo Mian) and more recently in a post about the Japanese guqin player, Uragami Gyokudō.  Here I am adding some more information on landscape and the art of the guqin via some quotations from the seminal Western book on the subject, R. H. van Gulik's The Lore of the Chinese Lute, first published in 1940.  This essay explains the evolution of the instrument into one of the scholar's most important possessions.  Artists and writers often depicted the poet wandering through mountains, accompanied by his lute, usually carried by a servant boy, so that he could play when moved by the beauty of the scenery.  Even when indoors, the lute player's 'mind should dwell with forests and streams'.  But ideally he would be outside, 'near an old pine tree, admiring its gnarled, antique appearance. In the shade of the pines some cranes should be stalking, and the lute player should admire their graceful movements, modelling on them his finger technique.' 

Here is a lovely sixteenth century description of the place of the lute in scholarly life.  Its subject is Ni Tsan (Ni Zan, 1301-74), the great Chinese landscape painter who I have referred to several times on this blog. 
'Where Ni Tsan dwelt there was the Ching-pi pavilion, breathing an atmosphere of profundity and remoteness from earthly things.  There he had assembled several thousand books, all of which he had corrected with his own hand.  On all sides there were arranged antique sacrificial vessels and famous lutes, and the abode was surrounded by pine trees, cinnamon trees, orchids, bamboos, etc.  It was fenced off by a high paling of poles and bamboo, suggesting aloofness and refined delicacy.  Every time the rain had stopped and the wind had abated, Ni Tsan used to take his staff and wander about, just going where his steps led him. When his eye met with something which particularly struck him, he played his lute, thus finding aesthetic satisfaction. Those who saw him then knew that he was a man who dwelt outside this world.'
An enviable life - I particularly like the way he 'corrected' the books in his library!  Playing the lute was seen as an almost priestly ritual: it could only be undertaken under the right circumstances.  The Lore of the Chinese Lute quotes a list from the Ming period in which over half of the fourteen rules relate to making music outdoors.  The lute may be played:
  1. When meeting someone who understands music.
  2. On meeting a suitable person.
  3. For a Taoist recluse
  4. In a high hall.
  5. Having ascended a storied pavilion.
  6. In a Taoist cloister.
  7. Sitting on a stone.
  8. Having climbed a mountain.
  9. Resting in a valley.
  10. Roaming along the waterside.
  11. In a boat.
  12. Resting in the shadow of a forest.
  13. When the two essences of nature are bright and clear.
  14. In a cool breeze and when there is a bright moon.

Finally here, I will highlight van Gulik's subdivision of the lute repertoire into five thematic groups: (1) The Mystic Journey; (2) Tunes of a Semi-Historical Character; (3) Musical Versions of Literary Products (e.g. poems from the ancient Book of Odes); (4) Tunes Descriptive of Nature; (5) Tunes Descriptive of Literary Life.  Elements of landscape may be evoked in any of these categories, but it is the fourth group that is of most interest here.  One such composition is the Song Dynasty tune I described here previously, 'Clouds over the Hsiao and Hsiang Rivers'.  Another is 'High Mountains and Flowing Waters' (for the story of Po Ya, to whom it was ascribed, see my earlier post).  This exists as two separate pieces, one of which, 'Flowing Waters', is now the best known qin composition  - a version was sent into space on the Voyager golden record (see clip above and, for more information, John Thompson's incredibly informative qin site). 

The third example of nature description van Gulik gives is by Ts'ai Yung (Cai Yong 133-92), a polymath of the Eastern Han period whose daughter also became a renowned poet and musician.  It is a tune which evokes in nine sections the end of winter and the coming of spring. A Ming Dynasty lute handbook says of this that 'it takes its inspiration from the snow, describes snow's purity and freedom from all earthly stains, and expresses contempt for the world and elevation to empty clearness'.
  1. Heaven and earth breathe purity.
  2. A clear, snowy morning.
  3. Snow and sleet fall together.
  4. Mountains and water merge in each other.
  5. The brilliant sun in the sky.
  6. The wind blows through the luxuriant forest.
  7. River and mountain are like a picture.
  8. The snow melts on cliffs and in vales.
  9. Spring returns to the world.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

This loud brook’s incessant fall

As this loud brook’s incessant fall
In streaming rings restagnates all,
Which reach by course the bank, and then
Are no more seen, just so pass men.

- from Henry Vaughan's 'The Waterfall', 1655
My previous post, on  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's anthology Poems of Places, brings to mind Geoffrey Grigson, whose (considerably shorter) anthology Poems & Places I discussed here in 2009.  In another of his books, Recollections (1984), Grigson writes of the pleasures to be had in 'visiting or soaking myself for a while in scenery spiritualized, I suppose that is the word, by writers in their poems.'  He lists the Quantocks (Coleridge), the Lakes (the Wordsworths), the Cotswolds (Gurney), the Vale of Clwyd (Hopkins), Long Island (Whitman - 'wiping it clean again in fancy to the nakedness of sands and sea birds he knew') and outside Brecon in Wales, 'the Black Mountains, rivers, streams and waterfalls and the Langhorse Lake, recognizable in Vaughan's verbal spiritualization of the scenery he had known since childhood.'  He goes on to say
'There are discoveries to be made in this way.  Searching the map, I found that there exists a neglected waterfall just outside Brecon which Vaughan might have had in mind when he wrote his waterfall poem.  Had he translated the Welsh name of the stream, which is Ffrwdgrech, into the 'loud brook' of his poem?  That could be the meaning of the Welsh in these Ffrwdgrech Falls.  So I looked for the waterfall, to which there is no path, which can be missed on a lane which doesn't give a hint of the Falls' existence; and I felt as if I were the first person to recognize the falls and admire their extraordinary charm since Vaughan had been their repeatedly in the seventeenth century.'

Ffrwdgrech Waterfall, near Brecon, 1880s
In his introduction to Poems & Places Grigson says that few poets before the Romantics 'felt landscape more powerfully and with a completer consciousness than Henry Vaughan.'   He quotes Vaughan's 'twin brother Thomas, alchemist and clergyman in the same parish', on the idea that we should try 'to refer all naturals to their spirituals by the way of secret analogy.'  Hence a poem like 'The Waterfall' in which landscape is a metaphor for the spirit.  Thomas Vaughan is represented in Grigson's anthology be one poem, 'So Have I Spent on the Banks of Ysca Many a Serious Hour', his brother by seven, including 'The Waterfall'.    I'll end here with more of Henry Vaughan's poem, this time from the beginning, where short lines evoke the rapid descent of the water.
With what deep murmurs through time’s silent stealth
Doth thy transparent, cool, and wat’ry wealth
           Here flowing fall,
           And chide, and call,
As if his liquid, loose retinue stay’d
Ling’ring, and were of this steep place afraid;
           The common pass
           Where, clear as glass,
           All must descend
           Not to an end,
But quicken’d by this deep and rocky grave,
Rise to a longer course more bright and brave.