Monday, 29 March 2010

Overheard on a Saltmarsh

I've just been re-reading some of the poetry of Harold Monro (1879-1932), a poet, poetry editor and bookshop proprietor whose reputation has dwindled to the point where he's remembered only via a handful of his works. One of these is the excellent Overheard on a Saltmarsh:
Nymph, nymph, what are your beads?

Green glass, goblin. Why do you stare at them?

Give them me.


Give them me. Give them me.


Then I will howl all night in the reeds,
Lie in the mud and howl for them.

Goblin, why do you love them so?

They are better than stars or water,
Better than voices of winds that sing,
Better than any man’s fair daughter,
Your green glass beads on a silver ring.

Hush, I stole them out of the moon.

Give me your beads, I want them.


I will howl in the deep lagoon
For your green glass beads, I love them so.

Give them me. Give them.

It's an enigmatic piece that - like many other classic works - rapidly became stereotyped as a children's poem. Even just a decade after being written, it was already being treated as that, as in Blanche Jennings Thompson's 1927 Silver Pennies: a collection of modern poems for boys and girls, which framed it thus:
Listen to this queer little conversation between a nymph and a goblin. How do you think they look? Can you read it so that we can tell which one is speaking? What do you think the goblin wished to do with the beads?
This classification was cemented by its use in any number of anthologies including Carol Ann Duffy's Overheard on a Saltmarsh: Poets' Favourite Poems. Perhaps it's understandable; the characterisations are clear-cut on first reading: of a pestering Gollum-like creature coveting the beads of an innocent nymph (see depictions by Harry Clarke, Gail E Hailey, Anna Christenson and Molly Stanton). But closer reading shows that the goblin is by far the more articulate and lyrical of the pair; nor does he attempt to take them, just says how unhappy he'll be if not given them. Meanwhile the nymph, having herself stolen the beads, is by no means on the moral high ground as the current owner.

Overheard on a Saltmarsh was one of three poems that achieved posterity by inclusion in Edward Marsh's Georgian Poetry 1913-15 (Gutenberg EText-No. 9506). The others are Milk for the Cat and Children of Love. The former is a well-observed but hardly very deep description piece about "Pinknose", a cat belonging to Monro and his assistant (later wife) Alida Klementaski. At least one of Monro's colleagues didn't think much of it:
... in a mixed gathering one evening in London, "There's Harold Monro," said one of his contemporaries, and then called out to him in a mocking voice, "Monro! Miaow, miaow!"

Monro turned, looked displeased, and said in a serious tone: "That's a good poem, Z. That's a good poem.
The latter, the title poem of Monro's 1914 first anthology Children of Love (Internet Archive childrenoflove00monrrich), features an encounter between Cupid and the Christ-Child. Cupid wants to play but Jesus refuses, and goes away crying even after having been scratched by Cupid's arrow. As Joy Grant writes in her biography Harold Monro and the Poetry Bookshop, it's
an allegorical tableau: the child Jesus meets the child Cupid in a landscape borrowed from a quattrocento Florentine painting ... The meeting is a pretty fancy: but the conduct of these Botticellian babes is heavy with moral implications...
In part it's a take on traditional imagery of profane vs sacred love, but it's hard not to read into this something of the conflicts of Monro's own life. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says of him:
Monro then set out on the walk from Paris to Milan described in his Chronicle of a Pilgrimage (1909), the prelude to three years abroad, mostly spent in Florence and the freethinking community at Monte Verita, Ascona. Psychoanalysed in Zürich in 1908, he seems to have accepted that he was homosexual and that his marriage was beyond rescue. The separation became permanent, ending in divorce in 1916.

Few British people can have experienced so much of the alternative lifestyles that were being tried out on the continent. Monro's Before Dawn: Poems and Impressions (July 1911) declares boundless faith in the future, advocating sexual and social freedom, Wellsian socialism, and the Nietzschean ideal of the superman living at one with the earth.
Apart the few popular poems, Monro tends to be remembered as a very minor poet whose chief role was an enabler who published and supported other poets. However, his works are worth reading, and a number of them are on the Internet Archive: Judas (1907); The Chronicle of a Pilgrimage; Paris to Milan on foot (1909); Before Dawn (Poems and Impressions) (1911); Children of Love (1914); Strange Meetings (1917); Real Property (1922); and The Earth for Sale (1928). The title poem of the last is as powerful an expression of proto-environmentalism as you'll get:
How perilous life will become on earth
When the great breed of man has covered all.
The world, that was too large, will be too small.
Deserts and mountains will have been explored,
Valleys swarmed through; and our prolific breed,
Exceeding death ten million times by birth,
Will halt (bewildered, bored),
And then may droop and dwindle like an autumn weed.

How shall we meet that moment when we know
There is no room to grow;
We, conscious, and with lonely startled eyes
Glaring upon ourselves, and with no Lord
To pray to: judged, without appeal,
What shall we feel?
He, being withdrawn, no supplicating cries
Will call Him back. He'll speak no farther word.
I had been thinking of that final Earth.
Then I remembered she herself would lick
Her own lithe body clean, and from her girth
Wipe any vermin that might cling too thick.
Man makes himself believe he has claim
To plant bright flags on every hill he swarms;
But in the end, and in his own wild name,
And for the better prospect of his fame,
Whether it be a person or a race,
Earth, with a smiling face,
Will hold and smother him in her large arms.
- from The Earth for Sale, Harold Monro, University of Toronto, Representative Poetry Online
Addendum: since I wrote this, The Earth for Sale has been long enough out of copyright that it's findable online, hosted by the Bodleian Library on a Creative Commons license. See Europeana - The earth for sale poems - for a convenient portal.

- Ray

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Dr Church's steam coach: 1830s vapourware

image from print in Globe Hotel, Topsham

Having touched on the topic of road trains in the Pavane post a couple of years back, I've kept meaning to check out the background of the excellently steampunk vehicle, Dr Church's London and Birmingham Steam Coach, depicted in the above print. The image proves to be quite widespread; see, for instance, the Science and Society Picture Library page - Picture Reference: 10420391 - whose caption says:

Engraving by Josiah Allen after John Cooke showing the steam carriage designed and built by Dr Church of Birmingham in 1833. The carriage operated on a daily basis between Birmingham and London, at an average speed of 14 miles per hour. It had an unusual design, with three solid wheels, and could carry 44 passengers, 22 inside the carriage and 22 outside. Steam-powered coaches operated between various English towns between 1820 and 1840. The increased popularity of the rapidly expanding railway network, as well as opposition from operators of horse-drawn coaches, who physically blocked roads and persuaded the government to impose crippling tolls, was largely responsible for driving the steam coaches out of business.

The Science and Society Picture Library has another nice image -Image Ref. 10420069 - showing the machine in profile.

However, looking at more contemporary sources, it appears that Dr Church's coach was never a going concern. The couple of decades after 1820 were indeed a boom time for steam road travel, and the London and Birmingham Steam Carriage Company (formed in 1832 "with equal parts confidence, conviction and capital" 1) was one of many companies formed or projected to work steam carriages. "Dr Church" was William Church, a Vermont-born American inventor who had already devised an innovative typesetting machine. After moving to Bordesley Green, Birmingham, he took out a number of patents including ones pertaining to steam transportation (see Birmingham City Archives). Even at the start, there were doubts: in June 1832 a Mr "JHB" wrote to Mechanics' Magazine ...

Allow me, through the medium of your useful Journal, to ask the projectors of the " Birmingham Steam Carriage Company" ... if they have ever made any trial of their machine, either on a turnpike or other road. I am an inhabitant of Birmingham, and have heard a great deal said of the merits of Dr. Church and his new invented carriage, and what it it capable of doing, hut I canuot find on what road any experiment has ever been made to satisfy the public that it is capable, as alleged, of "taking a weight of fifteen tons fifteen miles an hour," and of "ascending any hills upon the turnpike-roads." ... I think the public should not be entrapped into a delusive scheme before the machine in question has had one public and decisive trial.

... and in November 1833 a "Junius Redivivius" sent to the same magazine a sarcastic but essentially sound critique - The Steam-Carriage Projectors - of the likely accuracy of the print, such as the inadequacy of the steering mechanism and the inaccurate proportions of the passengers to the supposedly eight-foot wheels.

William Fletcher's 1891 History and Development of Steam Locomotion on Common Roads (Internet Archive cu31924022808731) tells what happened next (see pages 104-107): the demo didn't take place until 1835, when it made it three miles down the Coventry Road out of the factory and sustained damage turning. In 1836, a number of publications carried the news (undoubtedly advertorial) that everything was fine:

We have much pleasure in stating that Dr. Church has at length completely and satisfactorily accomplished the construction of a steam-carriage, in every way suited to run on ordinary roads ... We have only space to say further, that the Birmingham and London Steam-carriage Company, with whom the Doctor is connected in this invention, are perfectly satisfied with the carriage as now completed ; and though alterations and shght improvements may and will necessarily be adopted in the future exercise of the plans, yet they deem the present carriage to be so fully effective and satisfactory, that they have advertised for a practical engineer to superintend the erection of a sufficient number of these carriages at their works, exactly according with the model produced.

We understand it to be the intention of the company to establish three stations between London and Birmingham for their trains of carriages to halt at, and to supply a fresh locomotive engine at each station, in order that the engines, after running about twenty-six miles, may be severally examined, and such little matters as cleaning, oiling, and adjusting parts attended to: which arrangement will avoid subjecting passengers to the inconvenience of delay, and tend greatly to prevent accidents.

We have only to add, that having witnessed the manner in which this carriage performs its duty on the public road, we have no hesitation in saying that we are now statisfied steam may be safely, and, we believe, economically employed, in connexion .with Dr. Church's improved machinery, as an effective substitute for horses, in the ordinary transit of stage-coach passengers on all the turnpike roads in the kingdom.
- page 386, The London Journal of Arts and Sciences, 1836

But as History and Development of Steam Locomotion on Common Roads says, it never happened. "This scheme was never practically accomplished; the carriages were constantly brought out, and as constantly failed". The proposed details of the London-Birmingham service, however, have trundled on as a factoid until now they've become repeated as fact.

Addendum: Peter Walford kindly supplied confirmation:

Thanks, Ray Girvan, for exposing the "Dr" Church steam carriage "vapourware" (I don't believe he was any kind of doctor). The false story of a daily 14 mph Birmingham – London service has become a ubiquitous internet "meme". The London and Birmingham Steam Carriage Co (LBSC) was projected in 1832 with a capital of £200,000 in £20 shares, allegedly over-subscribed. The chairman was colourful Birmingham financier and pioneer alderman Henry Van Wart (1784-1873) who like Church was American-born. It is alleged that LBSC was established by act of parliament, but it seems rather to have been established by an "indenture or deed of settlement" dated 3 Nov 1834. The company was dissolved by its directors on 11 May 1837, as is announced by aptly-named LBSC secretary W R Kettle in the only London Gazette entry relating directly to LBSC. There is only one other London Gazette entry (13 Jan 1837) that mentions LBSC. This relates to bankrupt "button and military ornament manufacturer, dealer and chapman" Joseph Phipson, whose "shares and interest" in LBSC were part of the assets under consideration.

Thanks very much, Peter. The false story is presumably given weight by the Science Museum endorsement of appearing in the Science and Society Picture Library image caption.

A road not taken

The whole area of steam road transport is an interesting, if geeky, historical "road not taken". The idea was promising, but one fighting against a mess of social, financial and technological factors, of which a major one was the perceived cost of maintaining roads torn up by these big heavy machines. Whether Dr Church's setup was scammy or just ill-planned, there were a number of ventures that worked well, such as that of Gurney and Dance - but they were scuppered by crippling tolls on steam vehicles adopted in 1831. In 1836, a parliamentary bill supported by Gurney ("An act to repeal such portions of all acts as impose prohibitory tolls on steam carriages, and to substitute other tolls on a equitable footing with horse carriages") was passed by the House of Commons, but failed in the House of Lords. The later Locomotive Acts maintained the situation.

There are plenty of good books on the era. A few samplers:

1. p. 135, Automobile quarterly, Volume 5, Issue 2, 1966, Princeton Institute for Historic Research.
- Ray

Wednesday, 17 March 2010


I've been lying abed with a bug - must've breathed some plague cloud - but amid general weirdness a word surfaced that pestered me so much I had to get up to Google it.

I remember from childhood a cowboy comic where an Indian character shouted "Onhey!" as he attacked. If I ever recalled it, I just assumed it was made up. To my surprise, it turns out to be authentic (or at least sourceable to period accounts). It turns up in a number of accounts of the Battle of Little Big Horn, as in that reportedly told by White Bull to Stanley Vestal:

White Bull said, “I saw a mounted soldier waver in his saddle. I quirted my pony and raced up to strike him and count the first coup on this enemy. Before I could reach him, he fell dying from his saddle. I reined up my pony, jumped down and struck the body with my quirt. I yelled, ‘Onhey! I have overcome this one.’ I took the man’s revolver and cartridge belt.
- The man who killed Custer ("To Stanley Vestal, the old Sioux warrior White Bull describes the day when he counted his greatest coup", American Heritage Magazine, February 1957, Volume 8, Issue 2

Another account, Vestal's book about Jim Bridger, makes the context even clearer: that it's one of a set of standard expressions used by the Sioux when counting coup or in real attacks.

Mr. Frank Zahn, the Upper Missouri Interpreter, states that the Sioux, in punishing a member of their own tribe, used the same expressions as when counting coup upon an enemy. The man who first struck shouted "Onhey." The second to strike shouted "Okihewakte"—I kill him second." The third, "Iyamini-wakte —I kill him third." The fourth warrior shouted in like manner in his turn.
- Jim Bridger, Mountain Man, 1946 (Internet Archive jimbridgermounta001190mbp)

It all sounds plausible enough for closure for the moment, though both of these sources come via Stanley Vestal; it'd be nice to see independent confirmation. I don't know what language it would be; "Sioux" covers three main languages (Lakota, Western Dakota and Easten Dakota) with multiple dialects.
- Ray

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Ruskin's plague cloud

It may be widely known, but I'd never heard until encountering a query about it that the poet, arist and critic John Ruskin was a keen meteorologist. In 1839, his Remarks on the present state of meteorological science (Transactions of the Meteorological Society) offered a still-pertinent description of the necessary cooperation to run a global meteorological network:

There is one point, it must now be observed, in which the science of meteorology differs from all others. A Galileo, or a Newton, by the unassisted workings of his solitary mind, may discover the secrets of the heavens, and form a new system of astronomy. A Davy in his lonely meditations on the crags of Cornwall, or in his solitary laboratory, might discover the most sublime mysteries of nature, and trace out the most intricate combinations of her elements. But the meteorologist is impotent if alone; his observations are useless ... It is perhaps for this reason that the cause of meteorology has hitherto been so slightly supported; no progress can be made by the most gigantic efforts of a solitary intellect, and the co-operation demanded was difficult to obtain, because it was necessary that the individuals should think, observe, and act simultaneously, though separated from each other by distances on the greatness of which depended the utility of the observations. The Meteorological Society, therefore, has been formed, not for a city, nor for a kingdom, but for the world.

Some fifty years later, Ruskin's meteorological, social and artistic ideas came together in a couple of strange, if not apocalyptic, lectures delivered at the London Institution on February 4th and 11th, 1884: The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century (Project Gutenberg EText-No. 20204). In these he described novel weather he had seen over the previous decades:

So far as the existing evidence, I say, of former literature can be interpreted, the storm-cloud--or more accurately plague-cloud, for it is not always stormy--which I am about to describe to you, never was seen but by now living, or _lately_ living eyes. It is not yet twenty years that this--I may well call it, wonderful, cloud has been, in its essence, recognizable. There is no description of it, so far as I have read, by any ancient observer. Neither Homer nor Virgil, neither Aristophanes nor Horace, acknowledge any such clouds among those compelled by Jove. Chaucer has no word of them, nor Dante; Milton none, nor Thomson. In modern times, Scott, Wordsworth and Byron are alike unconscious of them; and the most observant and descriptive of scientific men, De Saussure, is utterly silent concerning them. Taking up the traditions of air from the year before Scott's death, I am able, by my own constant and close observation, to certify you that in the forty following years (1831 to 1871 approximately--for the phenomena in question came on gradually)--no such clouds as these are, and are now often for months without intermission, were ever seen in the skies of England, France, or Italy.

Ruskin reported a peculiar wind that brought dark, and outright scary, cloud.

"For the sky is covered with gray cloud;--not rain-cloud, but a dry black veil, which no ray of sunshine can pierce; partly diffused in mist, feeble mist, enough to make distant objects unintelligible, yet without any substance, or wreathing, or color of its own. And everywhere the leaves of the trees are shaking fitfully, as they do before a thunder-storm; only not violently, but enough to show the passing to and fro of a strange, bitter, blighting wind. Dismal enough, had it been the first morning of its kind that summer had sent. But during all this spring, in London, and at Oxford, through meager March, through changelessly sullen April, through despondent May, and darkened June, morning after morning has come gray-shrouded thus.

And it is a new thing to me, and a very dreadful one. I am fifty years old, and more; and since I was five, have gleaned the best hours of my life in the sun of spring and summer mornings; and I never saw such as these, till now.
It looks partly as if it were made of poisonous smoke; very possibly it may be: there are at least two hundred furnace chimneys in a square of two miles on every side of me. But mere smoke would not blow to and fro in that wild way. It looks more to me as if it were made of dead men's souls--such of them as are not gone yet where they have to go, and may be flitting hither and thither, doubting, themselves, of the fittest place for them
1. It is a wind of darkness,--all the former conditions of tormenting winds, whether from the north or east were more or less capable of co-existing with sunlight, and often with steady and bright sunlight; but whenever, and wherever the plague-wind blows, be it but for ten minutes, the sky is darkened instantly.
2. It is a malignant _quality_ of wind, unconnected with any one quarter of the compass; it blows indifferently from all, attaching its own bitterness and malice to the worst characters of the proper winds of each quarter. It will blow either with drenching rain, or dry rage, from the south,--with ruinous blasts from the west,--with bitterest chills from the north,--and with venomous blight from the
I will tell you thus much: that had the weather when I was young been such as it is now, no book such as 'Modern Painters' ever would or _could_ have been written; for every argument, and every sentiment in that book, was founded on the personal experience of the beauty and blessing of nature, all spring and summer long; and on the then demonstrable fact that over a great portion of the world's surface the air and the earth were fitted to the education of the spirit of man as closely as a school-boy's primer is to his labor, and as gloriously as a lover's mistress is to his eyes.

That harmony is now broken, and broken the world round: fragments, indeed, of what existed still exist, and hours of what is past still return; but month by month the darkness gains upon the day, and the ashes of the Antipodes glare through the night.

Generally the press reported this solemnly and without much comment, as in the New York Times: Ruskin on Plague-Clouds. But in Nature on February 14 1884 there was a major hatchet-job - "Mr Ruskin's Bogies" - by the meteorologist William Clement Ley 1. Apart from taking Ruskin to task for his anti-scientific stance, he debunked the whole thing with observational evidence:

Professor Ruskin's utterances are perhaps to be taken least seriously when he is himself most serious, and probably he was never more in earnest than in his jeremiad on modern clouds, delivered at the London Institution on the 4th and 11th inst. Probably none of the readers of Nature have been terrified by the storm cloud of the nineteenth century, but should it be otherwise we hasten at once to their relief. Twenty years before the date fixed by Mr. Ruskin for the first appearance of his portentous " plague-cloud," the writer of the present article commenced a series of observations on the forms and structures of clouds, followed a few years later by such daily charts of wind and weather as could be constructed from the data, somewhat meagre, that were then accessible. As might be expected, cyclone and anticyclone were then as they are now. The dimensions and densities of the cloud layers have not altered, neither has our moral degeneracy nor the increased smoke of our manufacturing towns developed any new form of cloud. Neither (until the phenomenal sunrises and sunsets of the last three months 2) has Nature, in painting the clouds, employed upon her palette any fresh tints, whatever artists may have done. Further, we have not observed, nor met with any one, except Mr. Ruskin, who has observed, that the wind during the last thirteen years has adopted a "hissing" instead of a "wailing" tone, or that the pressure anemometer indicates that the motion of the air has become more tremulous than heretofore.

So what was Ruskin writing about? Critiques tend to polarise between the enviromental and the psychological: on the one hand co-opting Ruskin as an environmentalist and treating the lectures as an early account of industrial smog 3; on the other, reading it as an obsessed and depressed Ruskin projecting his anxieties on to the weather (for instance, Peter Morton's The Vital Science: Biology and the Literary Imagination,1860-1900 has an interesting analysis at the beginning of chapter 4 - Laying the Ghost of the Brute: The Fear of Degeneration - taking the view that Ruskin, having already had episodes of mental disorder, was in an existentially fragile state after reading about the heat-death of the universe). The moral intuition of Ruskin's "Storm-Cloud" (Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 22-SEP-05) discusses various examples of these stances, commenting that:

An examination of Ruskin's description of the six "essential signs" of the "plague-wind" accompanying the storm cloud lends scant credence to his argument that he was observing a new meteorological phenomenon .... Ruskin's "essential signs" ... have less to do with meteorological observation than with Old Testament-style prophetic judgment, being more concerned with impending spiritual apocalypse than with the weather.


But to say that industrial pollution did not create a new meteorological condition, which Ruskin claims to have observed, is not to say that he did not observe something. There is a factual basis for his observations. Rosenberg notes that "[t]he height of his weather obsession ... coincided, in England at least, with a period of high rainfall, extreme cold, and abnormally little sunshine." Rosenberg adds in a note: "Ruskin first observed the storm cloud in 1871; he last wrote of it in 1889. From 1869 through 1889 the temperature in London was below average for eighteen of the twenty-one years; rainfall was abnormally heavy from 1875 through 1882; reliable figures for sunshine are available only after 1879, but sixteen of the twenty autumns and winters from 1880 through 1889 were below average, and the total sunshine was below average for more than sixty per cent of the decade."

There is, in addition, strong reason why Ruskin might have been tipped over into giving the lectures in 1884; the skies and weather had been peculiar for months following the eruption of Krakatoa in August 1883; it's not hard to read "the ashes of the Antipodes glare through the night" as being a probable reference to this. Ruskin wasn't the only one to notice; see the Science and Society Picture Library for a selection of the sketches made by William Ashcroft of unusual skies in the years following Krakatoa. The "forensic astronomer" Donald Olson has argued that the sky in Edvard Munch's The Scream - although painted a decade later - was an observation of the dust-reddened sky from the eruption (see Krakatoa provided backdrop to Munch's scream). If you have journal access (which I don't), the paper The Spectacular English Sunsets of the 1880s (Zaniello, Thomas A., Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 360, issue 1 Victorian Sci, pp. 247-267) looks worth checking out on the topic; a footnote in Michael Wheeler's Ruskin and environment: the storm-cloud of the nineteenth century mentions that it provides "a full discussion of the scientific basis of Ruskin's prophetic interpretation of a well-documented phenomenon".

A Dry Black Veil (Brian Dillon, Cabinet, Issue 35, 2009) gives a bit of further social context in the Victorian paranoia about dust (understandable, in such a polluted era). It concludes with a comment on Ruskin's lectures:

This grotesque and opaque effluvium, Victorian successor to the miasma that appalled John Evelyn, is for Ruskin a real meteorological phenomenon; his second lecture is for the most part a defense of the first against the disbelieving and even mocking reactions of the press. But we ought surely to read too in Ruskin’s anguished account of the way the cloud has overcome him in recent years an image of history that contends with Benjamin’s more celebrated motif of the “angel of history.” Like Benjamin, Ruskin sees the rubbish of the world accumulating about him; but where Benjamin’s angel looks dolefully at its feet, the Victorian prophet looks to the sky, because he knows that the atmospheric and historical catastrophe will emerge, like a swirl of dust, out of the air itself.

Samuel Barber's 1903 The cloud world, its features and significance (Internet Archive cloudworlditsfea00barbrich) identifies Ruskin's "plague cloud" as the "Cirro-Pallium":

Plague Cloud or Cirro-Pallium. — This is an occasional or amorphous form of a matted cirro-pallium; Ruskin's " plague-cloud," which he has moralised on and otherwise denominated the " Storm-cloud of the Nineteenth Century." When rain is approaching, it may be noticed that at certain periods, e.g. during a drought, the curves of cirrus sometimes lose their character and become bent, twisted, and, as some would put it, degraded ; thus giving rise to that ugly, matted, and confused confluence and crossing of lines which excited the abhorrence and vaticination of the great art-critic. It certainly has at times a scraggy and ominous look, and a " mangy" appearance like dirty, matted hair. A thin veil of almost transparent cloud, mixed with cirrus lines, spreading over a large portion of the sky, is often a concomitant of thundery weather.

- Ray

1. An authority on clouds, later author of the 1894 Cloudland: a study on the structure and characters of clouds (Internet Archive cloudlandastudy01leygoog).
2. As mentioned later, down to atmospheric dust from Krakatoa.
3. For instance, "In 1871, the social critic John Ruskin noted a new phenomenon that we now call smog" - The water garden: a practical guide to planning & planting, Peter Robinson, 1997; and "The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, an eccentric two-part discourse on smog" - Writers, readers, and occasions: selected essays on Victorian literature and life, Richard Daniel Altick, 1989.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Street View

View Larger Map

Ooh, look: the bookshop where I work is on Google Maps Street View, which has just been updated to include Exeter. You can take a tour around Topsham if you like. I don't recall seeing the Google car, but looking at the orange window display with the Halloween pumpkins, the photo would have been around the end of October.

- Ray

Anastatic blogging?

In the previous post, I briefly touched on anastatic printing (aka zincography), a form of facsimile printing invented in the 1840s. It involved moistening the printed original with nitric acid - which penetrated the paper but not the oil-based ink - and using it to etch a zinc printing plate. The plus side was that it produced an exact copy; the downside was that it destroyed the original (or at the least damaged it). This was fine if the original was created purely for the purpose of making the plate; not so good if it was a rare volume, especially as the process sometimes destroyed the original without producing a copy.

In the light of the controversy over the Google Books Agreement, it's interesting to look back and see analogous arguments about anastatic printing (arguments that have probably attended any new medium since cuneiform). The chief issue was that anastatic printing offered rapid and inexpensive print production compared to typesetting and hand-engraving of printing plates. In England, Michael Faraday showcased the technique in a lecture at the Royal Institution, showing that it took just twenty minutes to get from original to printing plate: Littell's Living Age enthused. Chambers' Journal, however, worried about the copyright implications in its commentary "New Graphic Wonders":

In contemplating the effect of these astonishing inventions, it is impossible to foresee their results upon the ordinary transactions of life. If any deed, negotiable security, or other legal instrument, can be so imitated that the writer of, and subscriber to it, cannot distinguish his own handwriting from that wliich is forged, new legislative enactments must be made, and new modes of representing money, and securing property by documentary record, must be resorted to. A paper currency and copyhold securities will be utterly useless, because they will no longer fulfil the objects, for which they, and instruments of a like nature, are employed. Again, the law of copyright as respects literary property will have to be thoroughly revised. Let us, for an instant, view the case in reference to ' The Times' newspaper. Suppose an early copy of that powerful journal to be some morning procured, and anastatyped in a quarter of an hour. The pirated pages may hereafter be subjected to printing machinery, and worked off at the rate of 4000 copies in each succeeding hour, and sold to the public, to the ruinous injury of the proprietors. The government newspaper stamp would be no protection, for of course that could be imitated as unerringly as the rest. This, too, is an extreme case against the imitators; for a newspaper would have to be done in a great hurry. Books, maps, prints, and music, could be pirated wholesale, and at leisure.

This proved a short-lived scare; anastatic printing simply didn't catch on. It did, however, have a brief flowering both as a copy process and for low-budget printing. See, for example, The Anastatic Facsimile of the Declaration of Independence ("A Case Study in Records Management in Early American Times") which tells the story of the anastatic copying - unthinkable nowadays - of an early copy of the Declaration. In Praise of Ephemera Fairs mentions the role of the process in creating ephemera. There were also the Anastatic Drawing Societies, which used the medium as a convenient way for amateur archaeology and antiquarian groups to publish and disseminate field notes and drawings (a kind of graphical Notes & Queries). The collections are of considerable historical value, and many of the journals are online, such as that of the Ilam Anastatic Drawing Society (see the Internet Archive) and the Anastatic Drawing Society (whose brief was

to delineate remains of Antiquity; e.g. ancient Ecclesiastical, Military, and Domestic Edifices, Sepulchral Monuments, Fonts, Brasses, Stained Glass, Tiles, Armour, Dress, Jewellery, Plate, Embroidery, Furniture, Carvings, Illuminations of ancient MSS., Copies of rare Prints, Portraits, Seals, Coins, Heraldry, &c. &c., illustrative of the early and middle ages.

A notable proponent of anastatic printing was Edgar Allan Poe, who also enthused about the process in Anastatic Printing, Broadway Journal, April 12, 1845, 1:229-231. A number of commentators have noted the passage ...

... authors will perceive the immense advantage of giving their own manuscripts directly to the public without the expensive interference of the type-setter, and the often ruinous intervention of the publisher. All that a man of letters need do, will be to pay some attention to legibility of MS., arrange his pages to suit himself, and stereotype them instantaneously, as arranged. He may intersperse them with his own drawings, or with anything to please his own fancy, in the certainty of being fairly brought before his readers, with all the freshness of his original conception about him.

... as prescient of blogging, although it's more prescient of self-publishing and samizdat, via technologies such as the mimeograph, hectograph and spirit duplicator. As John Ptak says at Ptak Science Books - Poe and the Internet, 1845 - "Poe’s technology was wrong, but his thought-prognosis was pretty spot-on".
- Ray

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Unhappy mediums

I'm not a great listener to the radio, but this afternoon's Saturday Play on Radio 4 (Confessions of a Medium - available on iPlayer for a week) was rather nice.

Dark comedy by AL Kennedy, set in 1870s London and based on a true story.

Mr Parker is a sincere and kind man who, in search of a higher meaning to life, has moved from conventional religion to seances and spiritualism. He believes he has met his saviour in the guise of Mr Thomson, a charming, erudite and utterly mesmerising medium. But, unbeknown to Parker, Thomson is a complete and utter fake.

Part of the interest is that the play is a historically accurate take on the adept magicianship used by mediums in the Victorian era, the heyday of elaborate physical mediumship. The origin of the "true story" isn't identified in any of the schedules, but from the title I'd guess it drew on the anonymous 1882 account Confessions of a medium (Internet Archive confessionsofmed00londrich). The mechanics of spiritualism by Harry Price ("the first celebrity ghost-hunter") has a number of other accounts and titles such as Revelations of a spirit medium (Internet Archive revelationsofspi00farriala), which caused a sensation on its first publication in 1891. Price writes:

... the work itself is a brilliant and detailed exposé of most of the tricks used by fraudulent mediums, who bought up all the copies they could find and destroyed them. The book is now of the extremest rarity. During a lifetime's collecting of rare books on magic I have found only three copies. One of these I sacrificed in order that a facsimile edition could be produced by the anastatic process 1

Parker and Thomson in the radio play appear to have been inspired by the partnership of Douglas Blackburn and George Albert Smith, who had a similarly ambivalent relationship over whether what they were doing was fraud. Their telepathy double-act even managed to get accredited by the Society for Psychical Research; some years later Blackburn, thinking Smith was dead, revealed how it was done; but Smith turned up and denied it. See the Blackburn and Smith entry in James Randi's An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural. The story is covered in some detail under Confessions of a "Telepathist" on pages 114- in Journal of the Society for Psychical Research for Ocotber 1911.

1. Anastatic printing produced a facsimile by destroying the original. I'm not sure what was up with just copying out the text.
- Ray

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Believe you me

Nice example of the power of Google Books as a tool for conducting fairly novel linguistic research. I just ran into a question on Yahoo! Answers about the origin of the expression "Believe you me", with its unusual verb-subject-object (VSO) construction.

Michael Quinion at the excellent World Wide Words shows evidence - see Believe you me - that English has an archaic VSO form used for imperatives, as in the King James Version of the Bible

For thus saith the Lord unto the house of Israel, Seek ye me, and ye shall live

but mentions that "Believe you me" is an outlier that came into the language late.

For further help here, I turned to Benjamin Zimmer, at the University of Pennsylvania, an ace at researching historical word usage. He tells me that there are earlier examples, but that nearly all of them are in verse, where the phrasing is useful for scansion. He has been able to find only three examples in prose from the nineteenth century.

What seems to have happened is that a once-standard phrase that had been lurking in the language for generations suddenly became much more popular and widespread around the 1920s. What we have here is a revitalised fossil, a semi-invented anachronism

It's amazing how access to sources has blossomed since that was written in 2006. Google Books now finds dozens of prose hits from the 19th century:

  • "Well, then, believe you me, that all poor Biddy's hope rests on her sweet Saviour" - 1829
  • "Master Denis shall feel, believe you me, what it is..." - 1829
  • "and believe you me, before that day twelvemonth it. would take more nor a yard of tape to make them an apron-string" - 1834
  • "it involves misery for themselves and for their children, believe you me the same selfish instincts that prompt these men..." - 1839
  • "The work is God's, and not man's; and believe you me, that not only Annas and Caiaphas, but Herod and Pilate too, are against Luther" - 1840
  • "Well, sir, believe you me, I'll give that lassy as good a strapping as ever she got when she comes back" - 1841
  • "for, believe you me, I'll never look at the same side of the road with Tade Ferrall again" - 1842.
  • "But believe you me, they will not be able to proceed much further" - 1847
  • "No, no, believe you me, sir, it won't do in a free country" - 1857
  • "Helter-skelter, pell-mell down the staircase they flew, and, believe you me, the commodore helped them in their descent" - 1861
  • "Believe you me, that if you were blown down there you'd be bruised to mummy among the tombstones" - 1864
  • "But many a time, believe you me, I bought a rabbit from you" - 1870
  • "Balzac stands for Paris, believe you me" - 1877
  • "We've not come to the worst yet, believe you me" - 1877
  • "Believe you me, they wouldn't have done the like of that without they'd got their orders direct from the Castle" - 1878
  • "No, Mike, believe you me, while grass grows or water runs" - 1882
  • etc ...

The interesting observation is, at first glance, that the majority of these early examples come from Irish publications: The Christian examiner and Church of Ireland magazine, Sketches in Erris and Tyrawly, The Dublin University Magazine, the Irish novel In Re Garland: A Tale of a Transition Time, Michael Banim's The Town of the Cascades, and so on. This could explain why "believe you me" is an outlier by date. A hypothesis: perhaps it isn't a relic of the archaic English VSO construct, but arrived by a different route. Irish Gaelic is a VSO language; maybe its sentence pattern influenced Irish English? A quick Google suggests "Believe you me" might correspond to the Irish phrase "Creid uaim é!" = "Take it from me!" (literally, "believe from-me it").

The 1857 example, by the way, isn't Irish, but Charles Dickens editorial in Household Words magazine.
- Ray

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Best of times... (1)

I've been re-reading John Brunner's 1962 Times Without Number - an example of the many excellent books that are out of print. It's a take on the SF set-piece of a time-travelling empire: a world in which the Spanish Armada wasn't defeated and in 1988 the world is dominated by a Spanish Empire under His Catholic Majesty Philip IX. Time travel (but only into the past) has been discovered, and is closely guarded by a Jesuit-like order, the Society of Time. Its research use is intermingled with the ritual: inaugurated Popes are taken back to see Jesus (from a safe distance where their presence won't interfere with Biblical events), and one of the Society's sacraments is a mass attended by all its members, past and present.

It rapidly becomes clear that this setup is an extremely shaky edifice, revealed progressively though the three novellas forming the book (a  revision and expansion of the 1962 Ace version, itself a compilation of segments that first appeared in Science Fiction Adventures). The first introduces the hero, Don Miguel de Navarro, as he investigates the illicit removal of a golden Aztec mask from its maker's workshop in the past, and finds there is considerable corruption in the use of the time apparatus. In the second, a royal reception is disastrously interrupted by the appearance of a group of lethal Amazon warriors from the court of "King Mahendra the White Elephant" in an alternative timeline. This forces the revelation to Don Miguel that the Society of Time conducts dangerous secret experiments in altering the past, then changing it back. In the third, Two Dogs, a disgruntled nationalist from the Mohawk Nation, threatens to break the Treaty of Prague - an international moratorium on time warfare - putting the whole fabric of the Empire at risk by striking at its key historical event, the Armada.

As I said, the basic time-empire premise isn't wildly uncommon in SF, and this is essentially a paste-up pulp SF novel. But Brunner puts a superior spin on it, not least through the implied comparison between his world and the real one. There is, for instance a deep irony in that we know that the Mohawk Nation fared considerably worse in the future Two Dogs wants (in fact our real-world history) than in the Times Without Number one, where it retains far more of its culture as an ally of the Spanish Empire. There's even the suggestion that a time war may already be happening; like one or two other reviewers, I strongly suspect that the enigmatic "Earl of Barton" who masterminded the Armada's success might himself be from the future. Nor is the ending entirely closed.

click to enlarge

The variants in cover art are interesting. Personally I find the 1969 Ace one (main image and above right) the best of the bunch. Of the other Ace editions (see here and here) the one of the Conquistador in the time apparatus - in the book this is a lattice of iron and silver bars - with the golden mask vaguely shown behind, isn't bad; the one showing what appears to be an Aztec warrior among badly-organised washing poles is pretty lame (as is the Beware of the Masters of "If" teaser used for both). The Hamlyn one focuses on the Amazon warrior episode, though completely inaccurately, as in the book they're not Goth Satanists; one in the book wears skimpy blue feathers, yellow skin-paint, beaded wristbands and red shoes (indeed it's hard to see why Ace, specialists in lurid covers, didn't spot the opportunity). The Ballantine Roman-on-a-racehorse one loses the plot completely.

- Ray

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Comic and animation miscellany

The best contemporary Japanese novel is a manga. Chris Michael at the Guardian Books Blog comments: "The ingeniously satirical Legend of Koizumi tells you far more about the country, far more entertainingly than any novel of recent years". The manga comic portrays the erudite but popular former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi as an action hero, and portrays Japanese international diplomacy as an intense mahjong game between titans ("simultaneously channelling and mocking the widely held Japanese idea that politics is a game played out between warring egos on a scale that dwarfs the common man"). The first episode of the anime adaptation is trailered on YouTube.

Miracleman: The Golden Age I've just been reading Neil Gaiman and Mark Buckingham's follow-up to the Marvelman/Miracleman mythos developed by Alan Moore. Unlike (say) the Superman mythos, where the hero does good but scarcely alters the status quo, the Miracleman story takes us into a world where the heroes have effectively become gods and transformed it (for instance, starting by dumping all fissile material into the Sun). Miracleman: The Golden Age focuses on the discontents and strange cultural developments of this Utopia. Supplicants climb Mount Olympus to seek favours from Miracleman. Unpopular and ugly children secretly worship "Bates", Miracleman's nemesis who destroyed London, whose ruin is preserved as memorial "Killing Fields". Miraclewoman takes a human lover, in a gender-reversed retelling of the Eros and Pysche myth. There are people whose paranoid worldview can't adjust to Utopia. There's Miraclewoman, again, who is unhappy in her super form but just as unhappy in her human persona, a plain and depressed doctor who most wants the love of her young daughter, who as a superbeing - though benign - is so otherworldly that she's incapable of tact, empathy or love. Though it does need knowledge of the backstory, it's a superb take - magical yet gloomy - on comic-book staples already transformed by Alan Moore. Lev Grossman of Time magazine included it among his Top 10 Graphic Novels (link and his full list).

ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies. I've mentioned before this open access journal from the English Department at the University of Florida; there's always something there of interest. The current issue - Volume 5, Issue 1 - has a number of articles on famous graphic novels. Graphic Whiteness and the Lessons of Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, by Juda Bennett and Cassandra Jackson, looks at the neglected racial angle of Jimmy Corrigan; Watchmen: The Graphic Novel as Trauma Fiction, by Brandy Ball Blake, looks at how personal trauma is an essential driving force to the narrative to Watchmen, whose characters (in my view) personify the different moral stances - amoral, utilitarian, and so on - all under the banner of fighting evil; and "To the Stables, Robin": Regenerating the Frontier in Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, by Theo Finigan, engages with the 'American monomyth' . This a reversal of the 'Campbell monomyth' - in which a hero goes out to adventure and comes back enlightened - to a motif where the hero comes from outside, defeats evil, then goes away again. See Heroes, previously.

Æon Flux. While skimming YouTube for tracks by Nightwish tracks, I found one used as backing for a tribute compilation for the animated series Æon Flux. This was a jolt to the memory; in the early 1990s, Channel 4 ran a series called Liquid Television co-produced with MTV. It featured a rather strange science fiction animation about an ultra-competent and acrobatic female spy, Æon Flux, with a fetishy costume and bizarre hairstyle, who in each episode was trying to thwart the plans of any enemy state (sometimes by infiltration, sometimes by direct attack with massive carnage). But every episode ended with her death, and the details were inconsistent; in some episodes, the enemy leader (now revealed to be called Trevor Goodchild) was her nemesis; in others her lover. In the first showing, there was no intelligible dialogue.

I recall a deal of discussion in the local SF club. It was claimed, for instance, that the repeated deaths and reincarnations meant the various Æon Fluxes were clones; or that the non-continuty and lack of dialogue were because the series had been hurriedly adapted from an anime series. Now Æon Flux is throughly documented, and all turns out to be intentional; the Korean-American animator Peter Chung "has said that this plot ambiguity and disregard for continuity are meant as a satire of mainstream action films, and his stories often emphasize the futility of violence and the ambiguity of personal morality". Whatever the reason, I find the series weirdly compelling; it has bizarre little touches that give depth to the dystopian world it's set in - details of characterisation and props that aren't directly pertinent to moving the plot forward 1. According to Wikipedia, the visual style was deeply influenced by the figurative paintings and drawings of Egon Schiele.

See for the pilot episode, among others. There was a 2005 film based on the series. I missed it and don't intend to bother finding it; by all accounts it shoehorns the strangeness of the animation into a standard SF action movie with a linear plot.

1. "Gratuitous" details in fact; according Samuel R Delany a necessary component to successful literary characterization via three kinds of actions: gratuitous, purposeful and habitual. Animations tend to restrict themselves to the purposeful and habitual.
- Ray

Thursday, 4 March 2010

The Titanic verses

In the previous post, I mentioned Thomas Hardy's 1912 The Convergence of the Twain (Lines on the loss of the "Titanic") , which was written nine days after the event 1 and received its first public outing in the souvenir programme for the Dramatic and Operatic Matinee held at Covent Garden in aid of the Titanic Disaster Fund. The event itself was highly prestigious, both in performance and attendance; the next day's Times (May 15, 1912) mentions that Sarah Bernhardt and Anna Pavlova performed, along with now lesser-known names such as Mischa Elman, Clara Butt, Vesta Tilley and Louise Edvina.

Regarding the literary contributors to the programme, the Times quotes from the start of The Convergence of the Twain ...

In a solitude of the sea
Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.
Steel chambers, late the pyres
Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.
Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls -- grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.

... and lists "Mr W. L. Courtney, Mrs. Belloc Lowndes, Mr. Alfred Noyes, Mr. Stephen Phillips, Mr. Eden Philpotts, Mr. G. K. Chesterton, Mr. H. C. Bailey, Mr. Herbert Trench, Mr. Charles Buchel, Mr. John Hassall, and Mr. Bernard Partridge.

click to enlarge
I just tried to track some of these down. WL Courtney was chairman of the programme committee for the event. The Alfred Noyes contribution would be The Heroic Dead. Stephen Phillips: The Titanic, which is in his 1915 anthology Panama: and other poems, narrative and occasional. GK Chesterton: I'm not sure, but the New York Times reports that he wrote a Shakespearean satire on the toothlessness of the enquiry (see Stinging satire on Titanic inquiry; G.K. Chesterton Aroused by Failure to Lay a Basis for Criminal Charges). Charles Buchel (who signed himself Chas Buchel) did the cover artwork. Bernard Partridge was also an illustrator, well-known for his Punch commemorative drawing of a mourning Britannia and Liberty (whose accompanying poem, Toll of the Sea, was by the editor Owen Seaman).

Searching a little more widely finds many more examples of poems about the Titanic disaster; as a shocking event, it has attracted many tributes from poets known and unknown. For instance, there's the McGonagallesque In Memory of the Great Titanic by Jessie Gordon Allan. The Titanic poetry discussion at Encyclopedia Titanica leads to quite a few: After the Titanic by the Irish poet Derek Mahon describes not the diaaster but the personal aftermath for Ismay; EJ Pratt's 1099-line epic The Titanic ...

And out there in the starlight, with no trace
Upon it of its deed but the last wave
From the Titanic fretting at its base,
Silent, composed, ringed by its icy broods,
The grey shape with the palaeolithic face
Was still the master of the longitudes.

... and Hall Caine's 1912 memorial Hymn for Survivors of the Titanic. Christopher Thomas Nixon's 1912 The Passing of the Titanic gets, despite its flawless iambic pentameter, repeated nomination as the worst ever Titanic poem for its overblown and clumsy imagery:

Through deep-sea gates of famed Southampton's bay,
A mammoth liner swings in churning slide
Her regal tread ridged opaline gulfs asway,.
And gauntlet flings to chance, wind, shoal and tide.
Ark wonderful! Palatial town marine,
Invention's flower, rose-peak of skill-wrought plan;
The jewelled crown of Art the wizard, seen
Since Noah's trade in Shinar's land began.

Vast triple screws gyrating flail and bore
Swart blades as flukes of monstrous scouring whale;
Huge arm-rock cranks, and tree-bole shaftings roar
And thrum reverberate, loud dynamic gale.
Stout deep-thrust pistons lunge and flash disport
As mastadonic mighty tusks agleam;
Grim arc-bent turbine giant whirrs retort,
And gasps propulsing, force-gyved record dream.

The proud leviathanic courser bowls
Like flank-gored steed in all-out pounding race;
Though wireless tocsin sparked on ether tolls,
To brand Cain's curse-mark on her curbless face.
To-day she spurns yeast-spouting aftermath,
Displays spun heels of frolic rainbowed scorn;
Next sun will scan surprised, abandoned path
With flotsam pride and jetsam glories mourn.

Bare anguished Nations! Bow and shameless pour
With reason palled, and voices numb your tears;
Ten thousand shattered homes struck mourning sore
To aching yearn through cloud-filled blighted years!
Implore, prayer heeding, Heaven's All-loving Love,
Distil celestial balm, shed peace for pain;
At length in non-sea realms - which nought can move-
Mend every rift, weld every wreck-rent chain.

Even, of all people, Aleister Crowley wrote a poem about the Titanic disaster.

FORTH flashed the serpent streak of steel,
Consummate crown of man's device;
Down crashed upon an immobile
And brainless barrier of ice.
The grey gods shoot a laughing lip: ---
Let not faith founder with the ship!

We reel before the blows of fate;
Our stout souls stagger at the shock.
Oh! there is Something ultimate
Fixed faster than the living rock.
Catastrophe beyond belief
Harden our hearts to fear and grief!

The gods upon the Titans shower
Their high intolerable scorn;
But no god knoweth in what hour
A new Prometheus may be born.
Man to his doom goes driving down;
A crown of thorns is still a crown!

No power of nature shall withstand
At last the spirit of mankind:
It is not built upon the sand;
It is not wastrel to the wind.
Disaster and destruction tend
To taller triumph in the end.

- Aleister Crowley, The Equinox, the official organ of the A∴A∴ The review of scientific illuminism, v. 1, no. 9 - 1913.

Reading all these in quick succession does make you realise that even good poets produced - as the Encyclopedia Titanica forum moderator Inger Sheil puts it - "dreadful, if heartfelt, poetry" ...

I came across so much Titanic verse dedicated to the crew alone - and particularly Smith - when trawling through UK newspapers that I wrote an article for the ADB 3 on the subject a couple of years ago. Genuine pathos sits side by side, almost indiscriminately, with laughable bathos. It's no wonder that Shaw wrote such a searing column 4 on the swill that was circulating - when he says that some writers were handing paens to Captain Smith that they would hardly write for Nelson, it's a good description of some of the Smith poems (some of which have the Captain going down with his ship in raging sea and wave, glibly adding him to the pantheon of heroic British figures like Raleigh).

... and, even it fell into the cliche of the "inexorable fate" motif complained of by Shaw, what a higher order of work the Hardy poem is.
- Ray

1. Thomas Hardy - selected poems, ed. Tim Armstrong, Longman, 1993
2. Note to myself: check out Inger Shiel's comment which reports on the similar outbeak of "overwhelming outpouring of such truly dreadful poetry - particularly wretched doggerel" over the death of Lincoln, a poetic iceberg of which Whitman's O Captain! My Captain! is the respectale visible portion.
3. Atlantic Daily Bulletin, the research journal of the British Titanic Society.
4. "The Titanic: Some Unmentioned Morals", George Bernard Shaw, Daily News, 14 May 1912 - reported here in the New York Times.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Hardy's poetry: downbeat but great

Thomas Hardy's novels have such high profile via the many film and TV adaptations that it's easy to forget that Hardy was a prolific poet. He's buried 1 in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey; he called poetry his "first love", and he especially focused on it in later life, after the negative reviews of Jude the Obscure soured the experience of novel-writing, and after the death of his first wife in 1912. Not only was he prolific; nowadays he is critically viewed as a great, and groundbreaking, poet. The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Literature in English says of him:

He ... anticipated Modernism in breaking with the conventions of literary usage which usage which increasingly constrained Victorian poetry ... His poetry's fidelity to ordinary patterns of speech is matched by the realism and accessibility with which he treats a remarkable range of subjects; he may be approached as a nature poet, a topographical poet, a poet of London, of rural custom, of love, and of grief. His achievement as a poet was not fully recognized until after his death

I probably made a mistake some years back in first trying to read his Napoleonic War epic The Dynasts (Gutenberg EText-No. 4043), which although in verse is more of a "closet drama" - something like a movie screenplay - and considerably experimental. However, his works in conventional poetry - Wessex Poems and Other Verses onward - are far more accessible, and I think he's extremely good, as long as you don't mind him being extremely downbeat.

Many of the themes in his poetry are recognisable as those of the novels. Rural scenery, especially Dorset, features often, as do wry situations and black humour. I'll single out Satires of Circumstance as a current favourite for its dark and unsettling vignettes about human character. In "In Church", a Bible class student idolises the vicar for his emotional sermons, until she peeks into the vestry and sees him rehearsing the choreography. In "In the Cemetery", the sexton watches mothers squabbling over their children's graves, he knowing that he has moved all them all to a common grave to make room for a drain. In "Outside the Window", an accidentally eavesdropping young man catches a glimpse of his girlfriend's foul temper, and decides it's better to walk away. In "At the Draper's", a man discovers his wife shopping for a widow's dress. "On the Death-Bed" concerns a man's confession of using wartime as an opportunity to murder a rival.

This general fatalism pervades Hardy's poems, and a great many combine nostalgia with regret over lost loved ones and lost opportunities. It's hard not to relate this to Hardy's life and his childless and unhappy marriage to Emma Gifford, when there had been other women in his life who made an impression, notably Tryphena Sparks, memorialised in "Thoughts of Phena at the News of Her Death", and Florence Henniker, the probable model for the free-spirited Sue Bridehead in Jude the Obscure. And yet the second half of Satires of Circumstance is a series of love poems to his long-estranged wife; as discussed in A Pessimist in Flower, The love songs of Thomas Hardy (Meghan O'Rourke, Slate, Jan. 18, 2007), his motivation is complex, if not unfathomable.

There's a selection of Hardy's poetry in convenient format at Thomas Hardy and his Wessex. Elsewhere, the majority of his works are online at Project Gutenberg: Wessex Poems and Other Verses (1898), Poems of the Past and the Present (1901), Time's Laughingstocks, and Other Verses (1909), Satires of Circumstance (1914), Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (1917) and Late Lyrics and Earlier, With Many Other Verses (1922). Although I'm pretty sure they're out of copyright - 70 years after Hardy's death has elapsed - I can't find online his last two collections, Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs and Trifles (1925) and Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres (1928).

A look at the reviews and separate poems online suggest the last two are more of the same; Rosemarie Morgan's Student Companion to Thomas Hardy says of Human Shows:

Human Shows is filled with loneliness, what one American contemporary, Isabelle Wentworth Lawrence, described as the "essential but terrible loneliness of the individual human soul" (Boston Evening Transcript, January 1926). The loneliness lingers at familiar thresholds, spiritually silenced: "And mute by the gate I stand again alone, /And nobody pulls up there" ("Nobody Comes")

Winter Words, summarised as a "superb volume" in Harold Bloom's A Map of Misreading (see page 23 and thereabouts) is more or less Hardy's elegy to himself. It contains his chosen final poem "He Resolves To Say No More" and what Bloom describes as it as what "may be the bleakest sonnet in the language", "We are Getting to the End":

We are getting to the end of visioning
The impossible within this universe,
Such as that better whiles may follow worse,
Or that our race may mend by reasoning.

We know that even as larks in cages sing
Unthoughtful of deliverance from the curse
That holds them lifelong in a latticed hearse,
We ply spasmodically our pleasuring.

And that when nations set them to lay waste
Their neighbours' heritage by foot and horse,
And hack their pleasant plains in festering seams,
They may again,—not warely, or from taste,
But tickled mad by some demonic force.—
Yes. We are getting to the end of dreams!

The dates of the poetry are a little surprising; Hardy (again perhaps because of the high profile of the novels) has the feel of a Victorian author, but most of his poetic work was early 20th century, notably the 1912 The Convergence of the Twain subtitled (Lines on the loss of the "Titanic") 2. It was controversial - see Human Fallibility in Thomas Hardy's "Convergence of the Twain" (April, 1912) at The Victorian Web - for its general lack of focus on the human tragedy; it strongly implies the Titanic 'had it coming' as an embodiment of human vanity, and that the final meeting of ship and iceberg was a mutual destiny:

Alien they seemed to be;
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,

Or sign that they were bent
By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,

Till the Spinner of the Years
Said "Now!" And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

I find that last line quite chilling; a couple of decades later, that could easily have been an allusion to the detonation of the "Fat Man" nuclear bomb, whose core consisted of two plutonium hemispheres brought together to create a critical mass.

Before I depress readers to the point where they need to listen to some Leonard Cohen to cheer them up, I'll finish with Hardy's The Ruined Maid. and Great Things. While undoubtedly the first impinges on major social issues - see The Victorian Web again - and the second has a certain wistfulness, they shows Hardy was capable of lightening up on occasion.

The Ruined Maid

"O 'Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?"
"O didn't you know I'd been ruined?" said she.

"You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,
Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks;
And now you've gay bracelets and bright feathers three!"
"Yes: that's how we dress when we're ruined," said she.

-"At home in the barton you said 'thee' and 'thou,'
And 'thik oon,' and 'theäs oon,' and 't'other'; but now
Your talking quite fits 'ee for high compa-ny!"
"Some polish is gained with one's ruin," said she.

"Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak
But now I'm bewitched by your delicate cheek,
And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!"
"We never do work when we're ruined," said she.

"You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,
And you'd sigh, and you'd sock; but at present you seem
To know not of megrims or melancho-ly!"
"True. One's pretty lively when ruined," said she.

"I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!"
"My dear a raw country girl, such as you be,
Cannot quite expect that. You ain't ruined," said she.

Great Things

Sweet cyder is a great thing,
A great thing to me,
Spinning down to Weymouth town
By Ridgway thirstily,
And maid and mistress summoning
Who tend the hostelry:
O cyder is a great thing,
A great thing to me!

The dance it is a great thing,
A great thing to me,
With candles lit and partners fit
For night-long revelry.
And going home when day-dawning
Peeps pale upon the lea:
O dancing is a great thing,
A great thing to me!

Love is, yea, a great thing,
A great thing to me,
When, having drawn across the lawn
In darkness silently,
A figure flits like one a-wing
Out from the nearest tree:
O love is, yes, a great thing,
Aye, greatest thing to me!

Will these be always great things
Greatest things to me? . . .
Let it befall that one will call
"Soul, I have need of thee":
What then? Joy-jaunts, impassioned flings,
Love, and its ecstasy
Will always have been great things,
Greatest things to me!

- Ray

1. Most of him, anyway. His heart is buried in his wife's grave in Stinsford, Dorset; though there's also a literary legend that when the heart was excised, it was left on the kitchen table and carried off by the surgeon's cat.
2. The one on which the Simon Armitage 9/11 poem of the same name was based.