Sunday, September 14, 2014

make an imaginary addendum



You have Heep saying “humble” for the comfort of others, you have Walter Murdoch being humble for himself; there is the idea that happiness means some region of ignorance being maintained and even policed, not unacknowledged but actively defied with force and effort. Heep puts his whole life into it and is an embodiment of an innocent desire for goodness, light and truth -- not his own desire but the innocent desire of other people; he is other people's curdled innocence, and is a revenant of innocence that rots everything when he approaches it: friendship, marriage, sonliness, whatever, here he is, sort of a physical thing between yourself and the sprawling black unsolvable darkness. It is not Agnes who dulls down the horrors, it is him.

(When I think back to whoever-it-was' notion that Agnes is a totem more than she is a character, I want to see them in an invisible partnership, Heep the active repellant-of-darkness, Agnes the static repellent, and both of them occurring in orbit around David like neutrons.)

Murdoch's favourite police weapon is this phrase: “A blow-out on tripe and onions.”

Until I knew it, I was in the habit of using another formula, the saying of a character in Dickens -- in Great Expectations, if I remember rightly -- 'Wot larks!’ That, too, was a comfort; but Lady Dorothy’s formula is more invariably comforting.


Lady Dorothy, in the middle of a discussion about her friends' favourite foods, “wonderful things which only a chef of genius can prepare, and which are to be seen only on the tables of the very rich,” said, “Oh, gimme a good blow-out on tripe and onions.” Use it, says Murdoch: it will bring you back to basics.

Similarly when I read in Mr Bertrand Russell an account of the universe as modern science presents it to our view, ending with the words, ‘only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built’ -- the obvious comment that springs to one’s lips at once, is ‘Wot larks!’ But this, though comforting, is not wholly convincing. The right comment is ‘All right; and now, let’s have a blow-out on tripe and onions.’ The moment you have said that, you know that your soul is saved.


You should use it when you talk back to a book or when you rewrite a speech in your head. “To make an imaginary addendum to the Governor-General’s message, -- something like ‘To mark the universal grief, the Government House blow-out on tripe and onions has been postponed for a week’ -- relieved the tension of one’s mind.”

The formula is always inward and mental, never used aloud, and Heep's formula works best too, inside the closed system of a prison. See chapter sixty-one of David Copperfield.


Thursday, September 11, 2014

various newspapers for discourses



How could he not be, I say (meaning Paterson's presence in Bertram Stevens' Anthology of Australian Verse, and Stevens in the preface referring to him as one of two poets who were writing “the first realistic Australian verse of any importance,” Lawson being the other), but then remember that Walter Murdoch left Paterson out of The Oxford Book of Australasian Verse -- defying this sentence in his own introduction: “From this gathering the reader will—or so I hope—be able to get a fair idea of the kind of poetry these lands have been fashioning.”

Here the word “fair” has two meanings. On one hand Murdoch was habitually nondogmatic; a shading like “fair” is part of his normal vocabulary; and the essay of his that used to appear in school readers (“When I was at school during the 1940s, our English readers included an essay in praise of tripe and onions,” says his grand-nephew in the introduction to a recent collection of his essays (On Rabbits, Morality, Etc (2011)) starts with modesty, confident modesty (“The essay is to prose what the lyric is to poetry […] it is brief, informal, modest” (Murdoch: The Essay)), or he is “avuncular,” as other writers have said.

The Australians have a reputation for hospitality; and the hospitality of their newspapers is simply extraordinary. For instance, I myself have, in the past few years, been given space in various newspapers for discourses on every kind of topic, from rabbits to the League of Nations, from the poetry of Keats to the proper way of killing fowls, from cabbages to kings. But, curiously enough, I seem to have omitted, hitherto, to write an essay on tripe and onions.

It is not, of course, easy to be sure of this. I could make certain by hunting through the files …

(On Tripe and Onions)


But he won't, he says. It would make him too much like the wife of Lot. The language of humility can be proud; he writes the phrase “humble common sense” and with it he can dismiss Bertrand Russell and Walter Pater very casually, without explaining why they are wrong, they are just on the wrong side of his own common sense, which is humble, almost in the Uriah Heep way, it is meant to deflect despair or some other bad reaction, “things which would depress us horribly if we had to receive them in silence.” Heep's sneer is the difference; he knows that he is defacing his aggression for the benefit of other people. Murdoch, if you take him at his word, is doing it for the sake of happiness.


Sunday, September 7, 2014

in which a continuous state of mental distress is prolonged, unrelieved by incident, hope, or resistance



Enough about Stevens' anthology, says Daniel Deniehy, yawning: wrap up with something, tie off with some remark about his selection, my god, I say looking startled, this is not a review -- what is it then? -- a unloved violation of clarity, I said: I think, well, bush ballads almost absent, and the 1800s section of Les Murray's New Oxford Book of Australian Verse (1986) is vastly different, convict ballads, bushranger epics (“Jack Gilbert was a bushranger of terrible renown | For sticking lots of people up and shooting others down”), translations of Aboriginal oral poetry, which of course Stevens didn't; but what if he had, and why should I expect him not to?

(Noticeable, when I read books of verse by the New Zealanders Bathgate and Wilcox, the melancholy and guilty poems about the romance of a defeated Maori, “Here once the mighty Atua had his dwelling | In mystery,” from Wilcox's Onawe in Verses from Maoriland, and no counterpart in any of the Australian books so far. Not so in Australian prose, where it appears quite early. Leakey in The Broad Arrow had a character make a speech about it. Ditto Louisa Atkinson in Gertrude the Emigrant.)

Murray will take poems from Anonymous (or: the Collective Mind) and Stevens will not, no, more of a poet-canon-builder, Stevens, asking who is there, who can I acknowledge, even when they are only “fairly good”?

No doubt sociological reasons for that, Deniehy says sagaciously, if you wanted to look for them.

Murray's choice from Mary Gilmore is a piece about a small dead girl, and so is Stevens', but Murray's is a less whimsical poem, though you can't blame Stevens for choosing his Little Ghost over Murray's The Little Shoes That Died, when you look it up and discover that the first publication of Little Shoes occurred in the Sydney Morning Herald on the 5th of November, 1938, and Stevens' book came out more than two decades before.

Banjo Paterson is in Stevens' Anthology because how could he not be; and yet as I write those words, I remember that Yeats left Wilfred Owen out of The Oxford Book of Modern Verse in 1936, saying that “passive suffering is not a theme for poetry” after Matthew Arnold's preface to his Poems in 1853.

For the Muses, as Hesiod says, were born that they might be ‘a forgetfulness of evils, and a truce from cares’: and it is not enough that the Poet should add to the knowledge of men, it is required of him also that he should add to their happiness. ‘All Art,’ says Schiller, ‘is dedicated to Joy, and there is no higher and no more serious problem, than how to make men happy.' [So spake Leigh Hunt, says Daniel Deniehy] The right Art is that alone, which creates the highest enjoyment.

...

What then are the situations, from the representation of which, though accurate, no poetical enjoyment can be derived? They are those in which the suffering finds no vent in action; in which a continuous state of mental distress is prolonged, unrelieved by incident, hope, or resistance; in which there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done. In such situations there is inevitably something morbid, in the description of them something monotonous. When they occur in actual life, they are painful, not tragic; the representation of them in poetry is painful also.



Thursday, September 4, 2014

an air of human music



I assert my right not to be Dora Wilcox, says Daniel Deniehy; I assert my right to write like music, “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music,” that line they always quote from Walter Pater, an old line to you though it is not as old as me, who died in 1856, twenty-one years before it was written. I never knew it.

For while in all other kinds of art it is possible to distinguish the matter from the form, and the understanding can always make this distinction, yet it is the constant effort of art to obliterate it. That the mere matter of a poem, for instance, its subject, namely, its given incidents or situation — that the mere matter of a picture, the actual circumstances of an event, the actual topography of a landscape — should be nothing without the form, the spirit, of the handling, that this form, this mode of handling, should become an end in itself, should penetrate every part of the matter: this is what all art constantly strives after, and achieves in different degrees.

The “chamber music” of a fly in Proust, “evoking heat and light quite differently from an air of human music” in the Moncrieff translation, gives the fly itself the character of summer, “the flies' music is bound to the season,” and of course it is bound to the fly as well, in a chain (my imagination makes me wonder if the singing fly is accidentally telling the universe that it wants to aspire to the condition of music as well, since it is going in that direction, and one day we will all grant the wish it never asked for and it will disappear ...), see, then, I have tied myself to night, not night, your night, their night, it's my Night, and Wilcox has a bellbird and a nightingale, the bellbird bound to Australasia, the nightingale bound to England, a bondage expressed over five lines in London and again in Two Sonnets from the book Rata and Mistletoe (1911)

I. The Nightingale

Last eve I heard an English nightingale
Pouring her very soul out to the sky,
When nothing moved save Solitude and I
Pacing the fields together till the pale
Enchanted moonlight flooded all the vale.
And she sang on, and high and yet more high
Toward Heaven thrilled that rich and passionate cry,
Till at the full it seemed to flag and fail.


Thou art the embodied Spirit of the Past,
O Nightingale ! thou singest Love and Sorrow
For all that was, for all that could not last,
Being too perfect ; never shall to-morrow
Assuage thy pain, nor ever grant relief
For thy superb and all-consuming grief.


2. The Bell-Bird

Not so thou carollest at break of day,
O Bell-bird ! when the world is flushed with light
And slips triumphant from the clasp of night,
And the wind wakes and blows the clouds away,
And the hill-spirits rise and shout at play,
Rejoicing. Then thou takest sudden flight
From tree to tree, and warblest with delight.
Thou and thy comrades, jubilant and gay !


Thou singest of the Future, radiant Bird !
Surely the Gods have lent thee sacred fire
And taught thee songs forgotten or unheard
By old-world men ! thou singest of Desire,
Youth, and high Hope, and the infinity
Of all we dream the Newer Worlds may be.



Sunday, August 31, 2014

the subject is simply preaching



I wasn't slack in my speeches, he says, in parliament – you were sharp, I agree, you were the opposite of yourself as a poet, relaxation, sweetness, psht, you were impatient: “Preaching on the subject is simply preaching, whether the thing be worked up in the best infernal patterns and coloured with brimstone, or full of sympathies and sentiment and graceful mournings for what is holiest and loveliest in woman,” you said when you were talking about prostitution in 1859, but poetry is like a different species to you, you let it erase so much of you – it's a place to be beautiful, he says: it's the right outlet pipe or dwelling place for beauty and peace. I'm going to find someone who disagrees with that, I say (of course there are people who disagree, he says, but they didn't write my poems).

What about Dora Wilcox (1873 - 1953), in the same anthology as you?

Why Dora Wilcox? he asks – we were talking about nostalgia and I thought of her, I say. In London (1905).

When I look out on London's teeming streets,
On grim grey houses, and on leaden skies,
My courage fails me, and my heart grows sick,
And I remember that fair heritage
Barter'd by me for what your London gives.

Then she describes the past; she recalls details --

   Nor shall I hear again
The wind that rises at the dead of night
Suddenly, and sweeps inward from the sea,
Rustling the tussock

She grieves. Then she examines her grief.

Yet let me not lament that these things are
In that lov'd country I shall see no more;
All that has been is mine inviolate,
Lock'd in the secret book of memory.

Then she decides that there is another purpose for memory, it is not only there to make her “heart feel sick,” it is a point of access; she can use it. She gets her courage back. (“My courage fails me.”) She had a little focus, one person standing or sitting still, looking at the road and thinking, but now she has a large focus, going, finding, “walking unconstrained,” accompanied by sympathetic presences, though in London she is not accompanied by anyone, “speech seems but the babble of a crowd” in London.

… walking unconstrained
By ways familiar under Southern skies;
Nor unaccompanied; the dear dumb things
I lov'd once, have their immortality.
There too is all fulfilment of desire:
In this the valley of my Paradise
I find again lost ideals, dreams too fair
For lasting; there I meet once more mine own
Whom Death has stolen, or Life estranged from me, --
And thither, with the coming of the dark,
Thou comest, and the night is full of stars.

Your point? he says -- that she is using her poetry unpeacefully to pursue, like an eagle, and you are using yours to perpetuate a stasis or present moment with music and with soft opposites that cancel one another out more or less: the lovers then the “field of slain,” these two given such similar weight that neither one exists and they fray apart under the pressure of being the same thing; in her the “teeming” crowds are less important than a convolvulus, and the nightingale is not as beautiful as the bellbird. We can't all be Dora Wilcox, he says.


Thursday, August 28, 2014

baby's fading bloom



I tell him that I still don't respect Song for the Night. But you read De Quincey, he says. Yes I say, but we like different things in him; De Quincey's eccentricity (which is attention) led him to unusual convolutions or crevices (On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth) but you are the opposite, look, you write glosses, “her baby's fading bloom,” nostalgia for younger days at the nanny's knee … do you know how many poets in this anthology are suffering from nostalgia, I say: it's an epidemic – don't blame me for Bertram Stevens' taste in poems, he says, and don't tell me there's not nostalgia in the poems being published in your lifetime.

No, that's true, I say; I was reading the Island interview with Gwen Harwood earlier today and she said that she was “nostalgic even for five minutes ago.” When did she die? Nineteen ninety-five. And how many poems have I read about a living poet's dead father. But you can be suspicious of nostalgia, the way Geoffrey Hill is, or measureful, you can mediate between the past and the present (books mediate between the past of the writer's writing and the present of the reader's reading, say that writers themselves are measuring nostalgia), you can be Harwood and regard the past as if it's a courtroom where you go to be condemned in the present --

Good angel
give me that morning again
and let me share, and spare me
the shame of my parents' rebuke

she writes in Class of 1927 (I can't replicate her layout; the "good" should be over to the right) -- or

Anguish: remembered hours

when she recalls her mother in Mother Who Gave Me Life -- or you can have a more holistic grief, like the one that Cyril Connolly published in The Unquiet Grave, which is one of the books, Harwood says, that brought her towards poetry --

When I contemplate the accumulation of guilt and remorse which, like a garbage-can, I carry through life, and which is fed not only by the lightest action but by the most harmless pleasure, I feel Man to be of all living things the most biologically incompetent and ill-organized. Why has he acquired a seventy years life-span only to poison it incurably by the mere being of himself?

-- or you can say just, “Oh, nostalgia, alas,” as if it's one-dimensional and not part of you, and you were one of the ones who said, “Oh, nostalgia, alas.” You're slack.

I still have form in my poem, he says: which is a subspecies of ruthlessness, or a slaughterhouse, like memory. (Touché.) You keep ignoring that. I did mention music, I mutter; I said the whole purpose of the poem was music – then why are you criticising it for sticking to its bones? he asks, if you've already said that the bones were the point?


Sunday, August 24, 2014

brought about by that power of gentleness



Reading over Daniel Deniehy again I imagine him coming back at me like this (but in his own words, not these): “That's not true. My Song for the Night doesn't exist for 'no reason.' Night is sweet and charming and I love those things, I value those things, I have dedicated myself to kindness” (tears seriously in his eyes), “kindness and fairness – no hereditary aristocrats! I argued in parliament when Wentworth wanted to create a peerage in Australia. 'It is yours to offer them a land where man is bountifully rewarded for his labour, and where a just law no more recognises the supremacy of a class than it does the predominance of a creed,' I said. Bountifully rewarded. People will be good if you're good to them; we should offer education to all adults in the Mechanics' Institutes, but you teachers, don't patronise the students.

'As if two-thirds of those who never rank themselves at all with what is specially termed “the working classes” are not as thoroughly illiterate, in every true and deep sense, as the most culture-lorn mechanic who planes cedar or hammers leather; and as if every human being is not going through a course of education from the cradle to the grave.

'I was educated in sorrow myself, as I got older: 'she whom De Quincey called ‘Our Lady of Darkness’ has laid her awful hand upon my heart,' I told my wife in a letter, and we should fight back against that 'Mater Tenebarum,' as he calls her: 'she storms all doors at which she is permitted to enter at all;' my fight is so little – my weapon is so little – poor Night. Leigh Hunt, another weapon of mine.

'There was too much boyish goodness and sweetness in him to sympathise very heartily with the fiercer struggles of men. At his heart was for ever the whispering consciousness that things might be better brought about by that power of gentleness of which he has sung with a grace more delicate than the graces of the Sicilian muse he so loved. He was right, if men would only look upon the thing as the loving poet did. But, meanwhile, Leigh Hunt had philosophy as well as pleasure on his side. “Nothing,” says Goethe, “is an illusion that makes us happy.”


'Suggestive mysticism, that's what Night is, not time-wasting, and if Wordsworth thought it was worth it then so do I. 'One of the best things in the essay is a defence of Wordsworth's suggestive mysticism against Jeffrey's unfair demand for absolute definiteness and perspicuity in poetry,' I said in my review of Walter Bagehot's Essays. Read my poem Love in a Cottage. I respect the simple pleasures that suggest a larger principle at work: 'A cottage small be mine,' that's the crux of everything; my wife in To His Wife might be pretty or she might not but I don't talk about it because the important thing is her kindness. She is 'solace for this wrung and rifted heart' from go to whoa.

'For me, who for this thronging world’s hot strife
A prize hath brought to be
Among the known—but sweet too dearly earned;
Ah, pray for me.

'Be moved by me: I drank myself to death in Bathurst. 'Occasionally, at night, I feel more depressed and wretched than I think any human being, in Australia at all events, ever before felt. I keep at home, not going out or visiting anywhere, entering no hotels, and if from intense depression I take a little brandy, it is only in my own room at night,' is what I wrote to my wife fifteen days before I vomited blood and collapsed in the street. I was promising, I was witty, I was charismatic; they still remember me today when they use the words, 'bunyip aristocracy.' My phrase! 'Few would recognise the once gay and genial Member for Argyle in the poor, broken, prematurely aged man, tottering with feeble steps and staggering gait along the least frequented paths of the city where his bright, hopeful boyhood had been passed.' (E.L. Martin in Life and Speeches of Daniel Henry Deniehy (1884) quoting a character sketch by 'an impartial and kindly eye-witness — the Hon. Geoffrey Eagar.') De Quincey in Levana: 'Therefore it is that Levana often communes with the powers that shake a man’s heart: therefore it is that she dotes on grief.'”