Every One With Its Own Little Tune
Hardy, Brahms, Clouds, A Window, A Coyote.
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First of all, I’ve added a header photograph that shows up somewhere in the email or this posting. I’m still learning my way around this website and there are areas that I’m sure are still blank or have some dull standard text in them. I’ll be trying to make the whole place nice in the next little while. The header picture format is quite unusual and restrictive - very wide and flat - and I feel bad about having chopped down a photograph that I love, so here it is in full.
It’s by a British photographer called Hannah Starkey (https://www.saatchigallery.com/artist/hannah_starkey) who currently has an exhibition at The Hepworth Wakefield. This is a much earlier photograph, from 1998. I saw it in a magazine many years ago and cut it out and had it on a cork board while I was writing my first novel. I’ve always loved its quiet combination of the jewelled and the ordinary, and the sense it conveys of a person both inside and outside the usual flow of time, something which photography can capture so well and that is very suggestive for fiction. I love those pregnant moments when things might change, the gathering wave: a man pulls his car over to the side of the road to think for five minutes; .
With Thomas Hardy on my mind last week, I thought I’d make a sort of inventory of how I think of him. He’s someone I go back to quite often, sometimes to be steeled by his example. Hardy feels like a particularly solid, ample presence, a country and a mood; his productivity is sometimes an unspoken exhortation. What I’ll put together below will not be a piece of literary criticism but a montage of first thoughts and associations. I’m not sure what it will add up to be. I’ll write it and find out.
What I Think About When I Think About Thomas Hardy
I think of his forehead in a poem by Seamus Heaney that describes the child Hardy lying down on his back in a sheep field.
His small cool brow was like an anvil waiting For the sky to make it sing the perfect pitch Of his dumb being
And I think of his forehead in this portrait from 1893 by William Strang.
I’ve always loved the firm, substantial handling of oil paint in this picture that hangs (most of the time) in the National Portrait Gallery in London and which I’ve had as a postcard since I was a teenager. I like the downcast gaze, averted from confrontation or even interest in the viewer, involved in his own private world. I like the hard solidity of Hardy’s skull - a decent anvil - with a bit of glare on his forehead, and the hint of shy sensitivity in the ears, the sombre richness of the clothes, the highlight finding its way down his broken-looking nose, the wide, autumnal moustache.
Strang’s portrait confirms one by Seamus Heaney in another poem about Hardy where he writes of
the unperturbed, reliable ghost life he carried, with no need to invent.
‘No need to invent’ must be an oversimplification of Hardy’s imaginative life but ‘unperturbed, reliable’ seems right, given the lifelong accumulation of writings, particularly poems, and the sure, cartographic way Hardy delineated the extents of his fictional territory.
I think of a world extremely different to ours. I think for example of Hardy’s youth being so deprived of erotic possibilities that one of his earliest sexual memories was, if I remember Robert Gittings’s Young Thomas Hardy correctly, seeing a dead woman, hanged for some crime, swaying on the end of her rope with the wind blowing her skirt against her, revealing the shape of her legs.
And yet he extends very far forward in time. A man who remembered his childhood in the eighteen-forties, whose grandmother remembered hearing the news of a revolution in France, was still alive when the first talking movies came out. Hardy was still alive when Gabriel García Márquez was born. Strangely memorable fact: he died just a few weeks before Bruce Forsyth was born.
He lived on, like Robert Lowell’s widowed mother in old age: ‘as if she had stayed on a train/ one stop past her destination.’ And the modernists had this living Victorian monument to look upon or ignore, to visit, to make of what they would. Virginia Woolf knew him a little. Her father had been his editor for a while. In July of 1926, she and her husband Leonard visited him at the large house, Max Gate, that he, who as a young man trained as an architect, had designed himself.
Imperturbable and reliable again, creating ‘without a thought of its being difficult or remarkable,’ shrewd, bright-eyed, ‘having made up his mind.’
That dog wheezing away: it must have been pretty old by this time. The second Mrs Hardy, seen here by Virginia with her resignation and her ‘sad lack lustre eyes’ had bought the fox terrier at the time that Hardy was writing his great pained and passionate set of elegies for his first wife, the Poems of 1912-13. Hardy didn’t get on with the dog at first - it bit him - which may have been the second Mrs Hardy’s point, but in time he grew very fond of it. One Christmas he over fed it with goose and Christmas pudding until it puked. The dog was a terror to many. Virginia and Leonard were lucky to meet it in its dotage. J. M. Barrie described a visit to Max Gate during which "Wessex was especially uninhibited at dinner time, most of which he spent not under, but on, the table, walking about unchecked, and contesting every single forkful of food on its way from my plate to my mouth." Lady Cynthia Asquith thought it "the most despotic dog guests have ever suffered under."
Of all the modernists, D. H. Lawrence made the most of Hardy. I think often of this extraordinary section in his Study Of Thomas Hardy:
‘This is a constant revelation in Hardy’s novels: that there exists a great background, vital and vivid, which matters more than the people who move upon it…
This is the wonder of Hardy’s novels, and gives them their beauty. The vast, unexplored morality of life itself, what we call the immorality of nature, surrounds us in its eternal incomprehensibility, and in its midst goes on the little human morality play, with its queer frame of morality and its mechanized movement; seriously, portentously, till some one of the protagonists chances to look out of the charmed circle, weary of the stage, to look into the wilderness raging round. Then he is lost, his little drama falls to pieces, or becomes mere repetition, but the stupendous theatre outside goes on enacting its own incomprehensible drama, untouched. There is this quality in almost all Hardy’s work, and this is the magnificent irony it contains, the challenge, the contempt. Not the deliberate ironies, little tales of widows, or widowers, contain the irony of human life as we live it in our self-aggrandized gravity, but the big novels, The Return Of The Native, and the others.’
This seems right to me about Hardy and identifies what I think is a necessary ingredient of great fiction, wherever it comes in a story or novel: the look out and up at the limitless, inhuman context, the stars above the roof, the sea that treats alike its living and its dead.
Hardy’s nihilism makes him an awkward recruit for Lawrence’s project of vitalism, of rising phoenixes and generative natural energies, as Lawrence well knows. Lawrence refashioned the Hardy novel, I think, after his own purposes in the saturated rural physicality of The Rainbow and elsewhere. The seasons turn in Hardy but the winter is the truth of the matter. In poem after poem, transitoriness, accident, mischance, and death, as here:
The Robin When up aloft I fly and fly, I see in pools The shining sky, And a happy bird Am I, am I! When I descend Toward the brink I stand and look And stop and drink And bathe my wings, And chink, and prink. When winter frost Makes earth as steel, I search and search But find no meal, And most unhappy Then I feel. But when it lasts, And snows still fall, I get to feel No grief at all For I turn to a cold, stiff Feathery ball!
This is obviously not Hardy at his best, though it still has its flashes - the shining sky and that adamantine ‘Makes earth as steel.’ This is one of those moments when Hardy’s miserabilism becomes quite funny. That ridiculous last line, ‘Feathery ball!’ with an exclamation mark! (Even this in the better-known poem ‘Neutral Tones’ is almost funny in its emo gloom: ‘The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing/ Alive enough to have strength to die’). And yet ‘The Robin’ delivers a real shock. The naive Blakean first person and the story of struggle makes us assume we’ll get a little avian emblem of stoicisim and survival, a little Christian enduring bird, and instead we get a tiny corpse. And its in the offhand way that this is done, that this different narrative is assumed by Hardy, that we see what a genuinely post-Christian writer he is, radically emancipated into his vision of nothingness. Emil Cioran, you’ve got nothing on the guy who could write this poem, wishing for complete oblivion:
Before Life And After A time there was—as one may guess And as, indeed, earth’s testimonies tell— before the birth of consciousness, When all went well. None suffered sickness, love, or loss, None knew regret, starved hope, or heart-burnings; None cared whatever crash or cross Brought wrack to things. If something ceased, no tongue bewailed, If something winced and waned, no heart was wrung; If brightness dimmed, and dark prevailed. No sense was stung. But the disease of feeling germed, And primal rightness took the tinct of wrong: Ere nescience shall be reaffirmed How long, how long?
I can imagine Samuel Beckett relishing the lexical rarity and precision of ‘nescience,’ and one of his characters enjoying ‘the disease of feeling germed.’
I think of Samuel Beckett relishing, quoting, this line from Tess Of The D’Urbevilles: ‘When sorrow ceases to be speculative, sleep sees her opportunity.’ That whispering sibilance, the reliable ghost life, slightly misremembered by Beckett. He has ‘when grief ceases to be speculative…He had manipulated that sentence for many years now, emending its terms, as joy for grief, to answer his occasions, even calling upon it to bear the strain of certain applications for which he feared it had not been intended, and still it held good through it all.’
I think of the young Philip Larkin in his top floor flat in Belfast in 1950 really getting into Hardy’s collected poems. I think of the filling ashtray, Larkin lying on his bed or sat at his small desk, his long feet in poor quality postwar socks, finding that there was in every poem, as he put it later, ‘a little spinal cord of thought and each has a little tune of its own,’ and most of all feeling deeply accompanied in his sadness, in the desire for oblivion he felt running beneath his own life. In a letter to his girlfriend Monica Jones, discussing a theory of a hidden misfortune in Hardy’s life, an affair with his cousin Tryphena Sparks with possibly a child born, and Tryphena the model for Sue in Jude The Obscure. Larkin didn’t want it to be true. “But it would be disappointing to me if it were true - first, because I’ve always thought TH a non bastard, & secondly I should hate him to have some reason for being gloomy - I thought he & he alone saw the inherent misery of life.’
My first tutor at university, Dame Rachel Tricket, had an old and overfed pet dog called Tryphena. She warned me that Tryphena would try to win sympathy by pretending to have a limp which indeed it did, hobbling over the rug looking back at me over its round shoulder. The week I wrote an essay on Hardy’s novels, Rachel told me about The Dynasts, his epic poem of the Napoleonic Wars, generally considered an eccentric failure. There was one line she thought very funny. In The Dynasts various metaphysical beings pop in and out of the action. In Scene 9 of Part the Third, the Spirit of Pities, the Shade of the Earth, the Spirit of the Years, and several Recording Angels all materialise suddenly on the road from Smolensko into Lithuania. The Spirit of the Pities breaks the silence:
“Where are we? And why are we where we are?”
Rachel laughed. It is funny, with the ludicrous whanging w-sounds of ‘and why are we where we are’ that give the moment a touch of that bathos Hardy was susceptible to in his earnestness. (Feathery ball!). I think of this line quite often when I’m in a new place or on the street with friends working out where we’re going.
Rachel was old when I knew and died some years ago. Limping, grey-muzzled Tryphena went years before that. All of that world is gone. Hardy’s right about all of our personal oblivions as we pass through the years towards death, with sharp reminders catching at us along the way. I think of the names.
Lying Awake You, Morningtide Star, now are steady-eyed, over the east, I know it as if I saw you; You, Beeches, engrave on the sky your thin twigs, even the least; Had I paper and pencil I'd draw you. You, Meadow, are white with your counterpane cover of dew, I see it as if I were there; You, Churchyard, are lightening faint from the shade of the yew, The names creeping out everywhere.
I think sometimes of the boredom endured by British schoolchildren with no particular interest in Victorian literature slogging their way through a Hardy novel, struggling with the transliterated accents and what a ‘reddleman’ is. Acres of boredom. I think of the one pupil who with painstaking care inked out letters on the cover of an old copy I had to leave the title Far From The Mad Crow.
There is an eccentricity of diction that is sometimes cited as a problem that blemishes Hardy’s work. You can find oddities on almost every page of the huge Collected Poems. I open it at random and find ‘Strangely wistful,/ And half tristful’ and ‘Bewrapt past knowing’ and ‘Of what the yester noonshine brought to flower’. What I perceive in these moments is the textured individuality of the autodidact, the man who couldn’t go to university and strove his way into the literary world. I hear the unique effort and my heart goes out to him, as it goes out immediately to that stoical suffering face in the William Strang portrait.
I think of his consistency over a long life, how ‘reliable’ is his particular blend of the plain, the harrowing, the rhapsodic, commonsensical, stoical, lamenting, tender, atheistical, romantic and disillusioned. This brings me back to that Heaney poem with the boy Hardy lying in the field surrounded by sheep:
...and that stir he caused In the fleece-hustle was the original Of a ripple that would travel eighty years Outward from there, to be the same ripple Inside him at his last circumference.
My heart goes out to Brahms also, involuntarily. His music, particularly his chamber music, speaks a language of feeling that I deeply recognise and assent to and sometimes need like nothing else. He can be my ‘dark familiar’ as he was for the old Englishman dying in Florence in Wallace Stevens’s poem. But there are some Brahms pieces that I’ve never quite got. Some of his orchestral music can feel overbearingly, Victorianly heavy, often because of thick, rich recordings mit Schlagobers. And Brahms in a good mood, Brahms romping and dancing, can be quite awful. The floor shakes. You fear for the furniture.
I’ve listened a few times recently to a recording that has really opened up a piece for me that I’d never got before, because I think of those heavy recordings: the Double Concerto for Violin and Cello. It opens with a typical Brahmsian descending figure of three notes which in other versions I’ve heard feels top-heavy, almost like stumbling down some steps and hurting your ankle. Here, in Andrew Manze’s recording with soloists Antje Weithaas and Maximilian Hornung, it is light, incisive, dynamic. The cello’s first soliloquy is fantastically eloquent and forceful. The timbral blend of violin and cello is ideal. And the tender, trochaic rhythm of the second subject, introduced by the cello at 5:44, is just heartbreaking. I love everything about this recording, including its Caspar David Friedrich cover. It will be staying in heavy rotation.
Brahms Double Concerto Manze et al
I saw a coyote in the park the other day, a beautiful specimen, tall, relaxed, watchful, with a rich collar of smoke-coloured fur. It noticed me and lifted its head. Focussed alignment of narrow dark eyes and nostrils, sensing me. It dropped its head; I was no threat, but as I walked closer it looked up again then softly stepped around the trunk of a tree, its long tail a vapour as it disappeared out of sight. I got to the tree just a moment later and looked but, despite the wood being quite open, the coyote had vanished entirely and without a sound.
Lots of poems in this post and here’s another one, perhaps the best of all the many poems of human encounters with wild animals, the delicate overlapping of worlds. It’s by Ted Hughes, from his collection Moortown Diary, my copy pictured below with a blue jay feather.
Roe-Deer In the dawn-dirty light, in the biggest snow of the year Two blue-dark deer stood in the road, alerted. They had happened into my dimension The moment I was arriving just there. They planted their two or three years of secret deerhood Clear on my snow-screen vision of the abnormal And hesitated in the all-way disintegration And stared at me. And for some lasting seconds I could think the deer were waiting for me To remember the password and sign That the curtain had blown aside for a moment And there where the trees were no longer trees, nor the road a road The deer had come for me. Then they ducked through the hedge, and upright they rode their legs Away downhill over a snow-lonely field Towards tree dark - finally Seeming to eddy and glide and fly away up Into the boil of big flakes. The snow took them and soon their nearby hoofprints as well Revising its dawn inspiration Back to the ordinary.
The cinematography in this poem is incredible. That ‘all way disintegration’ and ‘Seeming to eddy and glide and fly away up.’ ‘Rode their legs’ also is spectacular bit of description, a shocking accuracy.
Youtube Treasure #2
The Goldmark Gallery in Rutland makes beautiful short films about its potters and artists. I’d recommend exploring their channel. Here is some time spent with earth, fire and colour, in the extraordinary process of potter Ken Matsuzaki.
This was a terrible idea. Wednesday the 18th broke me. Anyway, on it goes.
-4 degrees. Waking to snow. The ground and sky a mutual white. The tree trunks and branches plastered on one side. Roofs heaped and softened. But the snow in no hurry to fall. The flakes dither by the windows, travelling sideways and up.
-8 degrees. Marble sky. Rigid snow. Abbreviated movements of people’s gait in the winter – figures enlarged with hats, coats and gloves, stiff across the shoulders, arms hanging. Careful cars, sliding slow as carp in a freezing pond.
-5 degrees. Clear sky. Strong sun. Lucid cold. Bright complexity. Every tree with its subdividing network of violet shadows laid across the snow.
Temperature unknown due to internet and TV outage. Broken dunes of low cloud near the horizon, appearing in the gaps between houses. The sun warm enough to melt the weak edges of the snow. Occasional tick of falling drops. A little shine in the gutters.
3 degrees. Heavy rain. Dark and never quite clean, what with the rotted leaf remnants and pitted snow. The street a backwoods camper washing in a shallow creek.
4 degrees. Overcast. Felt grey. The weather is depressed. The weather is suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. The weather doesn’t want to do anything. It hangs around the blocks of flats. It sits in the park, shivering occasionally, staring at the big brown puddles on the grass.
2 degrees. Freezing rain, hissing through the trees. Skitter of ice pellets on the windows.
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