Sunday, April 26, 2020

On a sunlit day

I recently read Jeremy Noel-Tod's excellent anthology The Penguin Book of Prose Poetry and it prompted me to get down a few books from our library and look up some examples of prose poems.  James Wright, for example: in Above the River: The Complete Poems there are several short prose pieces written during the seventies, when he and his wife were spending their summers in Europe.  I have chosen seven of these in order to quote brief imagistic landscape descriptions; but as usual when I do this kind of thing, I need to apologise for taking such descriptions out of context and failing to do convey the actual point of the poems.  Still, as I sit writing this in London under lockdown, these fragments of text are a pleasant reminder of the light and beauty of Italy, and an excuse to include again a photograph of the Colosseum from our 2014 trip.

The Colosseum, Rome

As Donald Hall notes in his introduction, James Wright's Italy was a literary place: the landscape of Catullus, Virgil and Ovid, of Goethe's Italian Journey, Keats and Shelley, and the American novelists - Henry James, Edith Wharton and William Dean Howells (who was 'the other literary figure born in Martins Ferry, Ohio').  Sometimes thoughts of Ohio comes to Wright when he writes about Italy.  In the poem 'One Last Look at the Adige: Verona in the Rain', he imagines the Ohio river once looking something like the Adige, 'to the people who loved it / Long before I was born'.  Verona was, for Wright, 'one of the earth's loveliest places' and I will begin and end my quotes there.

On a sunlit day its pink and white marbles glow from within, and they glow from within when it is raining.

- The Arena, Verona

In all directions below us were valleys whose villages were just beginning to appear out of the mist, a splinter of a church here, an olive grove there.  It was a life in itself.

- San Gimignano

The fragrance of the water moves heavily and slowly with mussel shells and the sighs of drowned men.  There is nothing so heavy with earth as the sea's breath and the breath of fresh wilderness, the camomilla fields along the shore.

- Bari

All over Apulia, currents of sea air snarl among winds from the landwise mountains.  I can see thistle seeds tumbling everywhere, but I lose their pathways, they are so many.

- Apulia

At noon on a horizon the Colosseum poises in mid-flight, a crumbling moon of gibbous gold.  It catches an ancient light, and gives form to that light.

- The Colosseum, Rome

It is only the evenings that give the city this shape of light; they make the darkness frail and they give substance to the light.

- Venice

Its shape holds so fine a balance between the ground and the sky that its very stones are a meeting and an intermingling of light and shadow.  At noon, even the fierce Italian sunlight cannot force a glare out of the amphitheatre's gentleness.

- The Arena, Verona

There is one of Wright's prose poems written in Italy that I particularly like, 'The Lambs on the Boulder'.  It is about Cimabue and the story of how he 'discovered' Giotto, then just a shepherd boy, scratching sketches of lambs on a rock.  I always like the idea of treating such fanciful stories seriously (a different example of this impulse is Eric Rohmer's serious treatment of pastoral in The Romance of Astrea and Celadon).  'One of my idle wishes,' Wright says, 'is to find that field where Cimabue stood in the shade and watched the boy Giotto scratching his stone with his pebble.'  He imagines the way Cimabue would have observed the boy:
    I wonder how long Cimabue stood watching before he said anything.  I'll bet he waited for a long time.  He was Cimabue.
    I wonder how long Giotto worked before he noticed that he was being watched.  I'll bet he worked a long time.  He was Giotto.
    He probably paused every so often to take a drink of water and tend to the needs of his sheep, and then returned patiently to his patient boulder, before he heard over his shoulder in the twilight the courtesy of the Italian good evening from the countryside man who stood, certainly out of the little daylight left to the shepherd and his sheep alike.
    I wonder where that boulder is.  I wonder if the sweet faces of the lambs are still scratched on its sunlit side.

Gaetano Sabatelli, Cimabue and Giotto, 1846

Friday, April 24, 2020

Springwell Quarry

I was thinking the other day about the old cliché that alien planets in Dr Who were always filmed in quarries.  Apparently David Tennant (the tenth Doctor) once said "I've been to many planets in the solar system, and you'd be surprised how many of them look like quarries in Wales."  There is, you may be unsurprised to learn, a website devoted to the locations of Dr Who up until 2012 and from this I have extracted and listed below the complete list of quarries. The most frequently used (four times each) are Springwell Quarry and the Gerrards Cross Sand and Gravel Quarry.  Springwell Quarry is in Hertfordshire and was first used in 1972 for The Three Doctors.  The locations website has a small photograph from this with the caption 'The Brigadier begins to wonder if he really is at Cromer ...'  They note that 'part of the quarry is now a landfill site, but a huge part of the quarry still exists, and has been left to its natural state'.  As for Gerrards Cross Sand and Gravel Quarry, this was first used for an episode broadcast four days before I was born, and most recently in 1984 for Attack of the Cybermen (their photo is captioned 'The Doctor realises gastropods are involved.')  The quarry is still in use.

The image above shows the first use of a quarry in Dr Who, for the 1964 series The Dalek Invasion of the Earth.  This story was mainly set in central London but John's Hole Quarry in Kent was used as the site of a Dalek mine. As noted already, the locations website stops in 2012 and the last quarry location it mentions is Aberthaw Quarry in Wales.  I imagine there have been more recent examples, but I've not been watching Dr Who since the Tom Baker era so can't really comment on this myself.  I see from Wikipedia (which has information on every series) that overseas locations are now used, but I hope they still manage to fit some quarries in.  Some of the recent Jodie Whittaker episodes were made in South Africa.  The Daily Express relayed the news that Jodie had 'opened up on what the experience was like. She told Doctor Who Magazine how the shoot in the warm country lasted three weeks. The actress said: “It was warm, so that was good!"'
Aberthaw Quarry (The Time of Angels)
Argoed Quarry (Utopia)
Associated Portland Cement Company Quarry (The Macra Terror)
Beachfields Quarry (Frontier in Space)
Beachfields Quarry (Planet of the Daleks)
Beachfields Quarry (The Invasion of Time)
Betchworth Quarry (Genesis of the Daleks)
Betchworth Quarry (The Deadly Assassin)
Castle Cement Quarry (Battlefield)
Cloford Quarry (Time and the Rani)
Cwt y Bugail Quarry (Rigcycle) (The Five Doctors)
Gerrards Cross Sand and Gravel Quarry (Attack of the Cybermen)
Gerrards Cross Sand and Gravel Quarry (The Dominators)
Gerrards Cross Sand and Gravel Quarry (The Tomb of the Cybermen)
Gerrards Cross Sand and Gravel Quarry (The Twin Dilemma)
Hanson's Aggregates (Binnegar Plain quarry) (Death to the Daleks)
John's Hole Quarry (The Dalek Invasion of Earth)
Little Rollright Quarry (The Stones of Blood)
Shire Lane Quarry (The Savages)
Slickstones Quarry (The Hand of Fear)
Springwell Quarry (Delta and the Bannermen)
Springwell Quarry (Earthshock)
Springwell Quarry (The Three Doctors)
Springwell Quarry (The Twin Dilemma)
Tank Quarry (The Krotons)
Trefil Quarry (Enemy of the Bane)
Trefil Quarry (Planet of the Ood)
Trefil Quarry (The Temptation of Sarah Jane)
Vaynor Quarry (Last of the Time Lords)
Warmwell Quarry (Survival)
Warmwell Quarry (The Greatest Show in the Galaxy)
Wenvoe Quarry (The Impossible Planet)
Wenvoe Quarry (The Satan Pit)
Wenvoe Quarry (Utopia)
West of England Quarry (The Krotons)
Westdown Quarry (Time and the Rani)
Whatley Quarry (Time and the Rani)
Winspit Quarry (Destiny of the Daleks)
Winspit Quarry (The Underwater Menace)
Worsham Quarry (The Android Invasion)
Wrotham Quarry (The Dominators)

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Nature is not a place to visit

One use now made of writing on landscape that didn't exist when I started this blog is the Instagram Caption.  Many websites now offer Instagrammers advice on captions for their landscape photographs, because of course these images won't simply speak for themselves.  "Having a cool text will bring attraction to your photos and your social profile will gain popularity (that means more followers, likes, comments…)"  Some of the phrases suggested are inspirational statements with no definite author that seem to have arisen spontaneously from the internet itself, but others are real quotes.  Elite Daily, for example, has a Top Thirty for you to pick from, ranging from "Sometimes, all you need is a change in scenery" (no author) to "I seek to sea more" (which I guess I guess is just a bad pun?  Again, no author).  The actual writers in this list form a strange kind of pantheon: Confucious, Cat Stevens, John Ruskin, Dr. Seuss, John Muir, Mattie Stepanek and George Santayana.

Here are some other Instagram caption sites:
  • Captionclick has "150+" quotes.  "Nature captions for Instagram are in demand as we live on the most beautiful planet i.e Earth.... We see nature, enjoy it and click pictures of every moment and post it on social media..."  They have a section of real quotes which includes some writers I have featured here on this blog in the past: Gary Snyder, Walt Whitman, Jane Austin (sic), Dante Alighieri and Henry David Thoreau.
  • Quotesmaster boasts "200+" nature captions.  None of these are attributed to writers, although "Nature is not a place to visit it is home" is there and this is an unpuctuated version of the Gary Snyder quote provided on the other site.  Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the actual word "landscape" appears nowhere in their list.
  • Sweety High gives just 13 examples but offers specific advice to Instagrammers. "For the pic of you looking happy and carefree among the trees," they suggest: "Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you" (Frank Lloyd Wright). Or, "for the over-the-shoulder image of you creating art inspired by the world around you", there is: "The richness I achieve comes from nature, the source of my inspiration" (Claude Monet).  And then there's Gary Snyder again: "For the shot of you camping out in your favorite place: 'Nature is not a place to visit. It is home' - Gary Snyder."

  • I have embedded a video above with suggestions form a site called Travel+Leisure.  They recommend using their list of nature captions "so you can spend more time exploring our nation's amazing national parks, or chasing fleeting natural wonders — and spend less time brainstorming. That way, when the Wi-Fi signal picks up again, you can thank us for your most-liked nature posts ever." They have some different suggestions of writers, including Edgar Allen Poe, Sylvia Plath and Robin Williams ("Spring is nature's way of saying ‘let's party!").  They also suggest embellishing a John Muir quote: '"The mountains are calling and I must go.” ― John Muir *insert mountain emoticon*' [it occurs to me that the resulting post would provide an interesting semiotic combination of icon, index and symbol].
  • These websites may sound a bit obscure, but lists of suggested Instagram captions appear everywhere. Good Housekeeping, a media institution that dates back to 1885, had some seasonal spring quotes recently, although Robin Williams didn't feature in their selection.  Dickens, Neruda and Lady Bird Johnson were on the list, whilst they also had songwriters like The Beatles and John Denver (though sadly nothing from George Formby's 'Springtime's Here Again').  
So do people on Instagram really use these quotes?  I have just checked and the asnwer is: Yes!  However, the quotes and authors seem mostly to be turned into hashtags.  There are 1,218 posts with the hashtag #natureisnotaplacetovisititishome and 5,802 with #garysnyder. Instagram actually allows you to 'follow' #garysnyder, along with the 'related hashtags' which are as follows: #sunrise_sunsets_aroundtheworld, #treesilhouettes, #worldonsunset, #skypainters, #firesky, #cloudscapephotography, #powerofnature, #sunsetsworld, #cloudshot, #mothernature.  Nothing here about poetry, Buddhism, or ecology - presumably the algorithm's idea of 'garysnyder' is based on what photographs people have captioned with his name.

I should probably point out that in their 11 tips for crafting the perfect Instagram caption, Hootsuite advice against the use of quotes of 'the cliché inspirational variety'.  They also recommend a special app for ensuring Instagram texts are clear and use simple words: "Readability is key, especially on a medium like Instagram where users scroll through content quickly. The Hemingway app will help you craft clear, punchy copy that draws in a scanning set of eyes."  This suggests that accompanying a landscape photo with a quote from, say, Gerard Manley Hopkins, would not be advisable.

In some ways the unattributed caption suggestions on these sites are as interesting as their choice of literary quotes (especially as some of them seem to have been put through a translation package to give sentences like this: "I receive more than I initially seek when I walk in the nature.")  Most of these lists include a section of 'funny' captions.  The IG site explains that "by using nature captions for Instagram in lighthearted tone, does not mean that you are not appreciating it. It is actually the opposite instead, you are so awed by the nature that it is reflected through your witty personality."  The first suggestion in its list is this: "You won’t experience nature on the internet."

Monday, April 13, 2020

Hope-of-dew the giants call them, power-of-storms the elves

Alvíssmál ('All-Wise's Sayings') is a poem in the Poetic Edda in which Thor outwits a dwarf called Alvíss, 'All-Wise'.  All-Wise is 'the image of an ogre' and as 'pale as a corpse', but otherwise he's a kind of Robert Macfarlane character, ascending from the underland to list and explain poetic words and phrases for natural phenomena.  Here, for example, is the exchange on clouds, beginning with Thor's question.
'Tell me this, All-wise - I reckon, dwarf,
that you know all the fates of men -
what those clouds are called which mix with showers,
in each world.'

'Clouds they're called by men, and hope-of-showers by the gods,
the Vanir call them wind-floaters,
hope-of-dew the giants call them, power-of-storms the elves,
in hell the concealing helmet.'
W. G. Collingwood's illustration of the poem: 
The god Þórr holds his daughter Þrúðr while conversing with the dwarf Alvíss

Here are some of my favourites from the rest of Alvíssmál - the elves seem best at coming up with memorable kennings.
Earth: 'splendid-green' (the giants), 'the growing one' (the elves)
Sky: 'wind-weaver' (the Vanir), 'the dripping hall' (the dwarfs)
Moon: 'the hastener' (the giants), 'counter of years' (the elves)
Sun: 'everglow' (the giants), 'the lovely wheel' (the elves)
Wind: 'the waverer' (the gods), 'din-journeyer (the elves)
Calm: 'wind-end' (the Vanir), 'day-soother' (the elves)
Ocean: 'rolling one' (the Vanir), 'liquid-fundament' (the elves)
Fire: 'waverer' (the Vanir), 'ravener' (the giants)
Wood: 'wand' (the Vanir), 'lovely boughs' (the elves)
Night: 'unlight' (the giants), 'sleep-joy' (the elves)
Some of these kennings endow nature with human abilities (weaving, journeying) whilst others (used elsewhere in the Poetic Edda) attribute elements of landscape to the human body: a beard is a cheek-forest, a head is a shoulder-rock. Humanity was created, according to the 'Seeress's Prophecy', from driftwood and people are often compared to trees. One hero, Helgi, is called a 'splendidly-born elm'.  Warriors are an 'apple-tree of strife' or a 'maple of sharp weapons'; the blood they shed is 'slaughter-dew'.  Animals too can be linked to landscapes - wolves are heath-wanderers - and places can be names for animals - one of the dwarf Alviss's phrases for the sea is 'eel-land' (I prefer the kenning for sea used in Beowulf - whale-road.)  

I have quoted so far from the translation by Carolyne Larrington (The Poetic Edda itself was compiled in Iceland in the 1270s, drawing on much older material).  There is an excellent online resource, the Skaldic Project, which has a list of kennings found in the wider corpus of Skaldic verse, including those The Poetic Edda (i.e. the Codex Regius). Some of the longer kennings can read like cryptic crossword clues or compressed landscape poems in their own right.  I will conclude here with three examples from the site's list of 'big kennings' - those with at least four referents.  'Generosity' is gold, arising in a landscape of green rocks or from the 'salty, cool meadow' of the sea, whilst 'poetry' is a powerful drink, found in a cave on the 'path of the snow-drift.'

Monday, April 06, 2020

Sea Pictures

On 5 October 1899 attendees at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival heard the first performance of Edward Elgar's Sea Pictures, with Elgar conducting and Clara Butt singing, dressed as a mermaid.  The five songs were each based on a nineteenth century poem.

'Sea Slumber Song' by Roden Noel

Sea-birds are asleep,
The world forgets to weep,
Sea murmurs her soft slumber-song
On the shadowy sand
Of this elfin land...

Roden Noel (1834-94) was a poet attracted to sublime landscape: he called an 1885 collection Songs of the Heights and Deeps. One of these poems is 'Suspiria' - a word that for the modern reader recalls De Quncey's Suspiria de Profundis and the Dario Argento films it has inspired.  Like the film Suspiria, it is full of colour and drama. 'Do you remember the billowy roar of tumultuous ocean? / Darkling, emerald, eager under vaults of the cave, / Shattered to simmer of foam on a boulder of delicate lilac, / Disenchantless youth of the clear, immortal wave?' (and so on).  A posthumous collection was called My Sea and Other Poems and its editor praised Noel's nature poetry: 'numerous are the poets, still living, who will babble to you of brooks and flowers, but few or none who care to fathom the deeper mysteries of nature'.  It was the sea, above all, that 'had an overmastering fascination for him' and his poems inspired by it ring with a 'grand yet subtle music'.

In Haven (Capri) by Caroline Alice Elgar

... Closely cling, for waves beat fast,
Foam-flakes cloud the hurrying blast ...

The second 'Sea Picture' uses text by the composer's wife, who had also written 'The Wind at Dawn', a poem she gave Elgar on their engagement and that he had set to music in 1888.  'The Wind at Dawn' gives a dramatic description of a day beginning: 'The wind went out to meet with the sun / At the dawn when the night was done, / And he racked the clouds in lofty disdain / As they flocked in his airy train...'  C. Alice Roberts was actually a published novelist before she met Elgar.  In his book about the composer, Jerrold Northrop Moore notes the landscape symbolism in her book Marchcroft Manor (1882), where 'the feminine presence of Nature is recognised as the initiator of insight.'  In it she describes the beauty of autumn days when 'the lights and shades which we see varying and changing in the sunlight, enter into and work strange changes in the lives of some of us as well as play over the surface of the waters and hills.'

Sabbath Morning at Sea by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The ship went on with solemn face:
    To meet the darkness on the deep.
        The solemn ship went onward...

This one can't be called a seascape poem. Harper's Magazine for some reason reprinted it a few years ago and explained that 'for a modern audience, this may still be one of the less approachable of her major poems. It seems a typical example of Victorian religious sentimentality – the theme is the approach of death, and on All Saints Day, the narrator finds herself on a ship at sea.'  Of more interest to readers of this blog would be 'A Sea-side Walk', published three years earlier in 1836.  Again, the mood of the landscape affects the thoughts of those walking through it: 'For though we never spoke / Of the grey water and the shaded rock, / Dark wave and stone unconsciously were fused / Into the plaintive speaking that we used / Of absent friends and memories unforsook...'

Where Corals Lie by Richard Garnett

The deeps have music soft and low
When winds awake the airy spry,
It lures me, lures me on to go
And see the land where corals lie.

Richard Garnett was a biographer employed by the British Museum - Constance Garnett, translator of the Russian classics was his daughter-in-law and Bloomsbury writer David Garnett was his grandson.  His poems are (perhaps deservedly) seldom read these days.  Looking through the contents list of his collection Io in Egypt a few titles look promising, but they are marred by stale and out-dated language. 'Summer Moonlight', for example, begins with clouds leaving the moon 'half pillaged' of her light, until suddenly she is revealed and lights up a cascade.  Then, in an effect quite hard to imagine, the 'lustrous foam' melts 'into the rosy fires that made / The brown demureness of the rocks superb.' Another poem, 'Fading leaf and Fallen-leaf', sounds almost Japanese in its theme, but I couldn't get beyond the opening lines: 'Said Fading-leaf to Fallen-leaf, / "I toss alone on a forsaken tree..."'
The Swimmer by Adam Lindsay Gordon

With short, sharp, violent lights made vivid,
   To southward far as the sight can roam;
Only the swirl of the surges livid,
   The seas that climb and the surfs that comb...

The final poem is by an Australian poet whose reputation has fluctuated over the years - Bernard Shaw mocked him but he is the only Australian in Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner.  The Queen (praised for her coronavirus speech yesterday) actually quoted him in her 1992 annus mirabilis Christmas message.  'The Swimmer' appeared in Gordon's second collection Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes, published a day before his suicide in 1870.  The phrase 'galloping rhymes' is an allusion to his career as a jockey.  At Blue Lake in South Australia an obelisk was erected to commemorate one of his horse-riding feats: 'This obelisk was erected as a memorial to the famous Australian poet. From near this spot in July, 1864, Gordon made his famed leap on horseback over an old post and rail guard fence onto a narrow ledge overlooking the Blue Lake and jumped back again onto the roadway...'  From a landscape perspective this monument may be his most significant contribution - few of his poems stop long to admire a view.

Stamp issued in May 1985

Sea Pictures itself is apparently not well known outside Europe, possibly affected by Elgar's Last Night of the Proms reputation, as an Arts Fuse article suggests.  I cannot comment on the music because it so far removed from what I normally listen to, but it certainly drew praise at the time.  'A certain amount of less favourable criticism was directed towards the poetry,' however, according to an ABC article.  'Elgar did seem to have sentimentally Victorian tastes when it came to lyrics.'  Of the five writers he alighted on, only Roden Noel could really be described as a landscape poet and his work is now largely forgotten.  It is strange how some creative figures have an afterlife only via another medium, painted by a great artist, say, or inspiring a character in a novel, or in this case, drawn into a piece of music that has carried this odd little collection of poems floating out of their original time like flotsam drifting on the sea. 

Thursday, April 02, 2020

This grove, these fountains, this interwoven shade

Occasionally you read a sentence in an old book and you become suddenly aware of the vertiginous gulf of time separating you from its writer.  In one of Martial's Epigrams (4.25), written in 89 CE, he describes a region of northern Italy where he imagines spending his old age.  Its first line mentions the coastal town of Altinum and in a footnote to the poem, translator Gideon Nisbet says that its remains 'now lie a little inland.  After its sack by Attila the Hun in 452, its inhabitants, the Veneti, relocated to islands in the lagoon where their descendants would one day build Venice.'  So there is Martial, writing for a civilised and sophisticated Roman audience, unaware of the fate that would befall this town four centuries later, or the whole subsequent history of the rise and fall of the Venetian Republic.  Nor at that point could he foresee that he would spend his final days back in Spain, at Bibilis, the town where he had grown up.  Or that Bibilis too would disappear, to be replaced by a city the Moors called Qal‘at ’Ayyūb, the castle of Ayyub, and which we know today as Calatayud.

Sundial from St Buryan Church, Cornwall
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Martial dealt with the passing of time in a poem in praise of his friend, Julius Martial (5.20).  Instead of having to spend time on 'frowning lawsuits and the gloomy Forum' he imagines their days devoted to living well and spending time with books.  'As it is now, neither of us lives for his own benefit; each of us can feel his best days slipping away and leaving us behind.  They're gone, they've been debited from our account.'  That line - bonosque soles effugere atque abire sentit, qui nobis pereunt et imputantur - inspired a fashion for carving the phrase Pereunt et imputantur onto sundials. I've included here a couple of examples.  It is tempting here to digress onto the fascinating topic of sundial mottoes, but I will refer you instead to an Atlas Obscura article (here) and return to the poetry of Martial.
Sundial from Exeter Cathedral
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Even those of us who enjoy living in busy capital cities sometimes long for a more peaceful and beautiful environment.  Martial wrote (6.64) admiringly of the home of his friend Julius Martial, sited well above the streets of Rome, on the Janiculan Hill, a place 'more blissful than the gardens of the Hesperides'. Here is a late 19th century public domain translation of the next few lines:
Secluded retreats are spread over the hills, and the smooth summit, with gentle undulations, enjoys a cloudless sky, and, while a mist covers the hollow valleys, shines conspicuous in a light all its own. The graceful turrets of a lofty villa rise gently towards the stars. Hence you may see the seven hills, rulers of the world, and contemplate the whole extent of Rome, as well as the heights of Alba and Tusculum, and every cool retreat that lies in the suburbs...  
It is pleasing to think that Martial was able to enjoy a pleasant garden in his retirement.  The twelfth book of Epigrams was written in Spain and one of its poems (12.31) describes a retreat apparently gifted by his patron and mistress, Marcella.
This grove, these fountains, this interwoven shade of the spreading vine; this meandering stream of gurgling water; these meadows, and these rosaries which will not yield to the twice-bearing Paestum; these vegetables which bloom in the month of January, and feel not the cold; these eels that swim domestic in the enclosed waters; this white tower which affords an asylum for doves like itself in colour; all these are the gift of my mistress; Marcella gave me this retreat, this little kingdom, on my return to my native home after thirty-five years of absence. Had Nausicaa offered me the gardens of her sire, I should have said to Alcinous, "I prefer my own."